IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) _ Picking a No. 1 team in college basketball this season has been tricky. One time it's Arkansas, another time it's North Carolina, then it's Massachusetts, then North Carolina again.

No one has emerged as a dominant team.

Not so in college wrestling, where Iowa has proven indisputably to be the best. Coach Dan Gable's Hawkeyes aren't just beating their opponents. They're grinding them into the mat.

Three weeks ago, top-ranked Iowa faced No. 2 Oklahoma State. Final score: Iowa 31, OSU 3. No. 7 North Carolina lost to Iowa 33-9. No. 12 Clarion fell 40-3. No. 13 Penn State was beaten 33-6. Sixth-ranked Minnesota managed to get closer than anyone, but Iowa still doubled the score on the Gophers, 24-12.

Going into a weekend rematch with Oklahoma State, Iowa was 12-0 and had won 102 of 120 matches. After the first meeting with Iowa, Oklahoma State coach John Smith remarked, ``We looked like little boys out there.''

That from the coach of the defending national champion.

Iowa is considered a shoo-in for this year's NCAA title, which will be decided at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on the Iowa campus and already is sold out. The last time the national meet was held at Iowa, in 1991, the Hawkeyes won by 48 points.

And if Iowa needed any more incentive, it probably will be Gable's final national meet at home. Gable doesn't see it coming back to Iowa City before the year 2000, and he has indicated that he'll quit by then.

``Most people probably think we've got it won,'' said Iowa's Lincoln McIlravy, a junior who already has won two national championships and is ranked No. 1 at 150 pounds.

``But around here, coach Gable emphasizes all the time that there's no such thing as automatic in this sport. And as soon as you start thinking it's automatic, you're going to lose.''

Still, McIlravy was quick to admit, ``It is an advantage having it at home.''

Of course, success is nothing new for Gable, who won two NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal as a competitor. Now in his 19th season at Iowa, Gable has guided the Hawkeyes to 18 Big Ten championships and 12 NCAA titles, including nine straight from 1978-86.

The 1986 team is considered his best. That team had five of the 10 national champions, a national runner-up and scored a meet-record 158 points. This team isn't at that level yet, he said, but it could get there.

``Hey, I'm always looking for new records,'' Gable said. ``And it's hard to break those things in Iowa wrestling. I'd love to have this team end up being the best team ever. Right now, credentialswise, they're not. It's just a matter of what they do here by March 18.

``But they have the opportunity right now to do something and I think they'd better take that opportunity and if they don't, they're avoiding history.''

Four Iowa wrestlers are ranked No. 1 and three are undefeated _ McIlravy, Jeff McGinness at 126 and Joel Sharratt at 190. The other top-ranked wrestler, Mike Mena, has lost only twice at 118.

The Iowa lineup also includes No. 4 Daryl Weber at 158, No. 6 Bill Zadick at 142 and sixth-ranked Matt Nerem at 167. Gable says they, too, can win national titles.

``I think there's a lot of teams out there that think if they get three or four or five guys placing high that they've got a shot at us,'' Gable said. ``I think, though, that they're underestimating my second group a little.

``I don't think there's any of my guys right now, except for maybe the heavyweight class, without the mentality that they're going to win the nationals at their weight.''

Despite its dominance so far, Iowa is just now starting its push for the national tournament. The Hawkeyes have a dual meet at Iowa State next weekend. That will be followed by the Big Ten championships, then the NCAA meet.

McIlravy says the Hawkeyes will have no problems staying on track.

``Dual meets, personally they don't mean a lot to me,'' he said. ``It's just kind of, maybe not a formality, it's just a way to get better. What's really important to me, and I'm sure the other guys would say the same, is the national tournament.

``Nobody remembers what your scores were at the duals. They remember the national championships. And that's what we're all shooting for and until we get there, people are going to continue to be hungry and work hard.''

END ADV for Weekend Editions Feb. 11-12

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