Let’s talk Regionals. It’s about time. While nothing official will be decided until after conference championships on March 22nd, we’re close enough to the postseason now that we can begin to put together a reliable view of how things might play out. As a quick refresher, here is how the top 18 seeds will be divided into the six regional championships to be contested on April 5th, with the top two teams advancing to Nationals from each competition:
Regional 1: Seeds 1, 12, 13
Regional 2: Seeds 2, 11, 14
Regional 3: Seeds 3, 10, 15
Regional 4: Seeds 4, 9, 16
Regional 5: Seeds 5, 8, 17
Regional 6: Seeds 6, 7, 18
This year, the hosts are LSU, Georgia, Minnesota, Arkansas, Penn State, and Washington, so adjusting the rankings slightly to make sure that no two hosts would be placed in the same Regional, we would see the following Regional placements if the season ended today:
Regional 1:  LSU (host),  Oregon State  Illinois
Regional 2:  Oklahoma,  Auburn,  Minnesota (host)
Regional 3:  Florida,  Stanford,  Penn State (host)
Regional 4:  Alabama,  Nebraska,  Arkansas (host)
Regional 5:  Utah,  Michigan,  Boise State (this would be the Washington Regional)
Regional 6:  Georgia (host),  UCLA,  Central Michigan
Are you excited by this? I’m getting excited. This would be a pretty competitive slate if it ends this way or relatively close to it. We’ll have some changes, of course, but the overall impression of the Regionals will be something close to this. Usually, we’re glad to have one Regional with a potential delicious upset, but this setup gives us several up-in-the-air contests because the most dangerous thing in a Regional is a third-seeded host. Third seeds often haven’t showing the consistent scores to contend with the second seeds, but give them that little boost of home advantage, and suddenly they’re competitors or even favorites. That’s how Missouri was able to knock out Georgia in 2010. Georgia had a couple gymnasts out, and Missouri swooped in with a mid-196 at home and said thank you very much and packed for Nationals.
More often, when a seeded team fails to advance to Nationals, it’s the result of a total implosion rather than a close-fought struggle against a slightly inflated host, but as we develop more teams outside of that top 12 group that are capable of scoring in the 197s, it becomes more likely that smaller issues will decide which teams advance. An implosion won’t be necessary to cause upsets this year, and we only need to compare current #11 Auburn to current #16 Arkansas to see that. Both have a season high of 197.100, and Arkansas’s season average of 196.247 is actually nearly a tenth higher than Auburn’s. There’s enough parity in that second- and third-seeded group to render many of these Regionals very open and many of those spots interchangeable.
Let’s take a deeper look at what we have here.
If I’m Georgia, UCLA, Utah, or Michigan, I would light a votive offering to Mercury to keep the rankings just the way they are now because those four teams would be able to advance comfortably from those Regionals with anything resembling a normal performance. Interestingly, the last time Georgia hosted a Regional, they were also placed with UCLA in that 6-7-18 Regional. That was the meet when Shayla did the Shayla on her bars mount that we’ve never forgotten and will never forget. You’re welcome, Shayla. Also, the #18 seed in that Regional happened to be LSU. It was a different time. (Evidence: Sarie Morrison got a 9.725 on bars). Things change quickly round these parts. What a Regional it would be if those three teams were together this time around.
Beyond those two meets, things would get very competitive. While LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama should be able to advance from any Regional, none of the other second slots would be in any way clear before the meet. Who would you favor right now in the Arkansas/Nebraska, Penn State/Stanford, Auburn/Minnesota, and Oregon State/Illinois showdowns with Arkansas, Penn State, and Minnesota as hosts? They could go either way.
Nebraska has been scoring higher than Arkansas almost each week, but then we just saw Arkansas beat Nebraska in Nebraska this past weekend. It might seem like Stanford would be the comfortable choice over Penn State (and I would still take Stanford), but then again, Stanford’s away average this year is 196.204 while Penn State’s home average is 196.363. Across the last four meets overall, both teams have an average of 196.575. The identity of the host team can completely change what might otherwise seem a clear-cut result.
Sure, things won’t play out exactly as we have now, but interchange any of those teams in that 9-16 range, and you have a competitive meet with upset potential. And that’s what we want. Easy regional match-ups and obvious winners don’t make for compelling sport. What we likely have going on this season? That does. This is why I’ve been rattling on this year about teams getting out of that 9-16 ranking section because it’s too competitive for their own good. No one wants to get stuck with Minnesota, Penn State, or Arkansas because they will have no margin for mistakes. There will be no comfort for the second seeds placed in those Regionals, and it won’t take an implosion for an upset, just a slightly off day, or even a regular one.