Over the next few days, I’ll be taking several moments to preview the Regional Championships, providing analysis and predictions as to what we might see come Saturday, my favorite day in the NCAA calendar. The Raleigh Regional boasts top seed Florida and will be the first to start on Saturday (4 ET / 1 PT), so it seems a logical place to begin. Our competitors will be  Florida,  Ohio State,  Penn State,  NC State,  Kent State, and  North Carolina.
The Florida Gators once again find themselves in the 1/12/13 Regional, highlighting how nonsensical the seeding process is. If the goal is to finish in the top two at each Regional, why does the top-ranked team in the nation get the most difficult #3 seed? But this issue has been well covered, so I’ll stop there.
Last year, Florida barely eked its way into Nationals after imploding on beam when Boise State just missed the necessary score in the last rotation, but I don’t expect to see a repeat of those nail-biting conditions this year. While the Gators of 2012 are a bit less polished, they are also much less likely to incur a fall than were the Gators of 2011, which makes all the difference for qualifying. Lack of polish never prevented a top team from advancing. That’s the job of falls. As we saw at SECs, Florida can be a little off and still go into the low 197s, which should certainly be enough to win the group. I’m going to give this one to Florida in a landslide.
However, there are still issues we need to keep an eye on as we evaluate the Gators’ chances heading to Nationals. At SECs, the tumbling was uncontrolled and inexact, and there needs to be much more sticking across all the events. As Suzanne rightly pointed out on the SEC broadcast, Florida’s delayed training schedule has put them behind some of the other teams in terms of focusing on sticking. This is not necessarily a problem, in fact it’s probably a good thing, but it could become a problem if they haven’t made any progress on this front by Regionals.
Another concern of mine, as I’ve mentioned before, is the lineups. Florida is a very deep team on paper, but they have a self-imposed shallowness because of sticking to the same lineups. Who would go in on beam if there is an injury? What’s the vault situation? There’s Spicer in the first position and a slightly injured Ellis up second (or Shisler if Ellis can’t go), so there will likely be little progress above 9.800 in those spots. Now, as we saw at SECs, the final four for Florida can still make it a big rotation, but there is little margin in that lineup. If one of the last four takes a big landing deduction, they won’t be able to keep pace. At Nationals, Florida needs to be top 3 on vault. But this does go to show that Florida’s problems are relatively minor at this point, and having to count a couple 9.775s will not be a problem for another three weeks.
More interesting than the expected Florida romp, though, will be the fight for the second spot.
Unlike most of the other Regionals, where we see a likely second qualifier and a #3 seed that might challenge on a good day, the Raleigh Regional has three legitimate choices for the second spot for Nationals.
Throughout the season, Penn State had the edge over Ohio State in the rankings, but given the performance at Big Tens, the favorite for this position based on momentum is Ohio State. Penn State didn’t exactly struggle at Big Tens, but they had so very many 9.7 performances throughout the lineups that the degree to which they rely on Sharaya Musser to bump up the scores was really exposed. Madison Merriam will have to nearly match the scores from Musser for Penn State to contend. However, on a good day, they can go mid-196s, which may be enough.
Ohio State is in a rather different position. The Buckeyes do not have that one big scoring leader, which can hurt them in some of the anchor positions, but they have more people throughout the lineups who are capable of scoring 9.850s. The performance at Big Tens was also a turning point for Ohio State because it was the first time they put up a 196 on the road this season, which was one of the major questions marks surrounding their potential performance at Regionals. They had recorded big home scores before (and we all still question that 197.625 from the middle of the season), but proving the depth through the 4th and 3rd positions on the road was a major step.
We also can’t count out the hosts, NC State. Normally, I would say that they are just a step below the rest of the teams and wouldn’t have a clear shot at one of the top two spots, but the Wolf Pack has recorded a few high home scores this season, which gives everyone reason to pause and consider their chances. Now, if the meet is scored consistently, I don’t see NC State advancing because they don’t have the cleanliness of the teams ranked above them, but a little home boost could put them right in the hunt for the second position.
In tracking which of these teams will advance, watch the floor scores throughout the meet. If the judges are convinced by Ohio State’s tumbling and start giving them a few 9.875s, Penn State is going to have a very difficult time coming back from that because they will likely already have given away a few tenths on vault (I see bars and beam as pretty equivalent between the two). NC State is in the advantageous position of finishing on floor, where building scores and home benefit just might help the judges overlook some form issues on dance elements and allow them to journey over 9.850 as well. If NC State goes 49.200+ on floor, all bets are off.
I think we can safely assume that lightning will not strike again for Kent State. Ohio State drastically underperformed at Regionals last year and still finished just a tenth behind Kent State, and OSU has gotten better while KSU has not. The lack of Lenny in particular will keep Kent State’s scoring potential lower than last year in this deeper meet. While I’d love to see another surprise this year, I don’t think it will come from this team again. If we do have a drastic shakeup at the top with some falls, expect NC State to grab the open position.
I have seen only bits of North Carolina this season (during the dual meet with Alabama), but what I saw was a lot of 9.650 gymnastics. Expect UNC to score in the low-mid 195s with a good meet, but that will not be enough to leapfrog the higher ranked teams. Making the Regionals was the victory for them.