The second preview on the docket features our #2 national seed, the Oklahoma Sooners, traveling to Illinois in an effort to earn their place in yet another National Championship. Along with  Oklahoma, the teams competing in this Regional are  Stanford,  Denver,  Illinois,  Kentucky, and  Illinois-Chicago.
For being the #2 team in the country, Oklahoma certainly has been flying under the radar lately. The Sooners put up a significant score at the Big 12 Championships at home (the highest in the country that weekend, in fact), so they should be in the forefront of the conversation. And yet, they preceded that result with two lackluster road performances and have to deal with the injury to Kayla Nowak, so there are definite questions as to how this team is oriented heading into the championship season and whether their best gymnastics is still ahead of them.
However, like Florida, I don’t see much of a chance that Oklahoma will fail to advance. This team is consistent enough that, even whey they perform poorly, they’re still able to avoid counting falls and manage an adequate score. Though the Sooners were all kinds of off when they visited UCLA, they still posted a mid-196, and even that score would be enough to advance out of this group.
When watching Oklahoma at this Regional, keep an eye on amplitude of elements across all the events. This area is always evaluated inconsistently during the regular season, but when trying to separate routines during the postseason, it can become a much greater issue. The Sooners have enough difficulty and excel at putting up consistent routines, but in vaulting, tumbling, and some of the beam elements, Oklahoma needs to show competitive amplitude, speed, lightness, and extension, the kinds of qualities that gymnastics people mean when they talk about showing sufficient dynamics.
But for now, I expect to see Oklahoma’s lineup hit a lot of 9.875 routines this weekend and score around 197, which would be enough to qualify easily.
Before the Pac-12 Championships, Stanford was the odds-on choice for Regionals upset special for the second year in a row. While that still could happen, the combination of three excellent rotations at Pac-12s and a pretty cushy Regional draw means that I am no longer predicting it.
Stanford is beginning to peak and has shown some excellent, clean gymnastics, especially on the balance beam. Ivana Hong is also starting to hit the way she needs to in order to be a star for the team. At the beginning of the season, we knew it would be crucial for Hong and Shapiro to be scoring well on several events for Stanford to contend. Getting one of those two pieces in place means Stanford should make Nationals, though they will be hard pressed to go much farther. While the scores at Pac-12s were inflated, I can see Stanford earning in the high 196s for a complete meet counting no falls or major mistakes. I hesitate to go higher than that because I do still have questions about the depth of the floor and vault lineups as well as the ability to hit under pressure. And there certainly will be pressure at Regionals, with the team trying to overcome the disappointing memories from last year.
I feel confident enough that Stanford will advance, though, because the next seed is surprise #14 Denver. After a 196.350 on the road in the last meet, the Pioneers jumped to a season-high ranking to end the season. However, Denver peaks out in that low-196 range, so they are going to need someone above them to count a fall in order to advance because they don’t have the 9.900 performances to get there on their own. Moriah Martin’s vault can score very well, and there are some solid floor performances that can keep them competitive, but other than that, Denver will need to get those consistent 9.775-9.825 scores from every single competitor and hope that someone else makes a mistake.
I’m also including the #4 seed Illinois in the contenders section because they are the host team and they did make Nationals last year, but I don’t think it is too realistic to expect them to get there again. Illinois is in a similar situation to Denver in that they don’t have to 9.900s to help them get a big score, but they also have way too many routines that aren’t going to score higher than 9.750 to contend with Oklahoma and Stanford, even if there’s a fall counting. Once you get past Joannides, Weinstein, and See, the scores just aren’t there, even at a home meet. Vault has been the biggest struggle for Illinois this season, where they don’t break 49 and will give away so many tenths to the rest of the teams.
Oklahoma doesn’t really count falls and Stanford will be on enough of a mission that I see both of them advancing with a fairly comfortable margin.
As a team, Kentucky is not too different from Illinois, but the Wildcats lack the strong AA presence that Illinois has, which can make up for some of the 9.7s at the beginning of lineups. For Kentucky, the routines don’t really build toward stronger gymnastics at the end of the lineup. Everything is a bit too unrefined to see them scoring much higher than mid-195s, which will not be enough to advance. The surprise 5th place finish at SECs, when everyone saw them finishing last, should be the victory for this season.
Speaking of victories, Illinois-Chicago has advanced to the Regionals for the first time in five years. They have no chance to advance further, but well done on that front. For teams like UIC, this meet is more about trying to hit 24 for 24 to see how they match up against schools like Kentucky. Outpacing a Kentucky or a rival like Illinois would be a great boost for the team to make that next step.