Pac-12 Championship Preview

Saturday 3/19
Afternoon session 4:00 ET/1:00 PT
Evening session 9:00 ET/6:00 PT

The Pac-12 should take pride this season in winning the award for the weirdest conference championship scenario. Stanford is the #6 seed and competing in the “who even are you?” afternoon relegation session in spite of being quite a realistic title contender and possible winner, which if nothing else, will serve to make sure we all pay more attention to the afternoon session instead of getting distracted by the simultaneous Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC action. Fun fact: there will be at least 30 minutes during which all four of those championships are going on at the same time. Well, we’ve had a good life.

Stanford’s last meet featured a relative crushing of Georgia and UCLA, so if that’s any indication, Stanford is currently in the midst of pulling a Stanford once again this year. But, let’s begin with the ones who were good all season long and qualified for the coveted evening session.  

Utah, UCLA, Cal, Oregon State

Once again, Utah has earned the top seed in the conference on the back of resolutely having the fewest meltdowns. Hooray! Seven straight weeks of 197s coupled with breaking the 197.5 barrier in the last two outings has given the Utes a fairly comfortable ranking lead over the remaining Pac-12 teams, meaning they’ll be favorites heading in. Given what UCLA and Stanford can do, however, there shouldn’t more than a few tenths in this either way with hit meets all around (ahahahahahaha), so we have at least some reason to hope for excitement. UCLA is capable of busting out a massive day, and after Stanford goes, we’ll have the benefit of a legitimate pace standard through which to gauge Utah and UCLA’s performances. So, let’s break this thing down.

Rotation 1: UCLA vault, Cal bars, Utah beam, Oregon State floor

Event RQS for rotation 1:
Utah 49.290
UCLA 49.165
Oregon State 49.165
Cal 49.110

Of course UCLA is the team that drew its arch-nemesis, Olympic order, meaning the Bruins already have a four-tenth deficit, and the competition is two days away. It actually is probably beneficial to the Bruins as they make their money on beam and floor and would rather end there than begin there, hoping to squeeze out some home-meet level scoring as Cipra and Bynum on floor will be the last routines of the competition, at the end of a long day, once the judges are already halfway through the whiskey bottle. I know. That’s not right of me to say. They’ll obviously have finished the whiskey by that point and be on to the cooking sherry and rubbing alcohol.

As for vault, UCLA has lacked the required landing control and difficulty (having to rely on Bynum’s arabian and Pua’s roller coaster 1.5), often bouncing back on fulls and hoping to get a 9.825 out of them. The sticking shoes showed up just once a couple weeks ago to earn UCLA a 49.375, but more often the score has been about 49.1. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the Bruins will hope to go over 49.2 to keep pace early. None of the teams are starting on particularly strong events, so don’t expect anyone to run away with this thing at the beginning.

Utah’s beam will be among the key rotations to keep every eye on because of Stover Watch 2016. She may be able to compete beam at Pac-12s after all, and if she’s back in form, that bolsters Utah’s scoring potential by a solid tenth, maybe more, and seriously reduces the Fall Terror Index. It was rising considerably depending on who was going to have to come into the lineup. Utah has had its share of falls this season, but this isn’t among the most terrifying beam lineups in the conference. Lopez is currently doing the best beam work of her career, and if Utah can get at least 9.875s from her, Rowe, and Stover (?), along with two other hits, breaking into 49.300+ range seems doable, at least depending on how some of those early-lineup short splits are being evaluated. If the Utes emerge from beam in the first rotation with a true lead, that significantly fuels their chances because they’ll be heading off to higher-scoring, lower-risk events from here. If it’s 49.1 or lower, ring all the bells because it’s feeding time for the vultures. 

Oregon State hasn’t been as competitive as usual with the top of the Pac-12 this season, so while the Beavs remain a team to watch that could snatch this title at the last second (as has happened before), that scenario seems less likely this year. They’ve topped out in the high 196s, which is not going to be strong enough to win this championship. It would take a season high by a considerable margin, which would need to start on floor in the first rotation. Since floor is the highest-scoring event, Oregon State would need to nail that double pike parade with supreme control and use Perez powers to greatly exceed that paltry 49.1 RQS, which would guard against the inevitably dropped tenths coming on vault.

In contrast to Oregon State, Cal has recorded one score this season that could be good enough to win this title, but realistically it still looks like there’s another step between Cal and winning a conference title. The fact that it’s even a conversation this year, however, is a victory. Cal possesses great line on bars and has received some big numbers in a couple meets this season, but the performances I’ve seen have also included some flexed feet and missed handstands, so I’m eager to see how this rotation is evaluated. Bars was Cal’s highest-scoring event in that recent 197.5 result with a 49.475, and while there’s no need/reason to expect that again, the bars total needs to be at least in the same state as that 49.475. A 49.100 would severely compromise the team’s chance to hit 197. Exceeding RQS is key, but don’t necessarily expect Cal to be busting out with a lead in first half of the meet, starting on bars and beam. They’ll plan on making up ground on floor later on and pushing up through the standings from the back. 

Rotation 2: Oregon State vault, UCLA bars, Cal beam, Utah floor

Event RQS through 2 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 2):
Utah 98.755 (49.465)
UCLA 98.350 (49.185)
Cal 98.230 (49.120)
Oregon State 98.150 (48.985)

This is Utah’s rotation. RQS tells us that Utah should have a four-tenth lead at the halfway point, mostly because, in rotation 2, all the other teams go a weakness while Utah goes to the highest-scoring apparatus. Utah does not have big floor routines this year, but we’ve seen Schwab, Hughes, and Partyka (earlier in the season) earn some massive scores for going through cleanly and minimizing those landing deductions. It will be fascinating to watch how the judges respond to that and if they’re willing to give out 9.950s for double pike routines in the second rotation of a meet. The general scoring landscape and precedent leads me to think that they will, but we’ll see how this total compares to Utah’s home floor scoring (Utah has peaked at 49.425 for road floor, while the last three home floor scores have been 49.625, 49.575, and 49.525).

Meanwhile, UCLA will go to bars, so stop, drop, and roll. It has been a sloppy road this year. Without Peng and with Ohashi only able to show a couple routines so far, the lineup has been populated by too many just trying to squeak out a 9.825. Ohashi has returned to beam and floor so far post-sternum, but the bars lineup really does need her to elevate the scoring potential, along with one of Sophina’s good dismounts and some of that special magic that got Janay Honest a 9.950 last week. The goal for the Bruins here will be to minimize the deficit, because there will be a deficit versus Utah on floor. They’ll like their chances to gain ground later in the meet, so it’s about getting as close as possible. Getting closer than the RQS predicts would do.

Likewise, Cal will be looking to minimize damage in rotation 2 as beam has been the struggle event this season. It’s not nearly as worrisome as last year when it cost Cal the chance to upset Utah at regionals, but it’s still the event on which Cal is most likely to get stuck counting scores in the 9.7s. We are seeing shades of truly fine performances from the likes of Howe, and that RQS is over 49, but Cal will be relying more on bars and floor to bump up the score.

If you’re pointing to an event that has contributed the most to Oregon State’s falling a bit lower in the Pac-12 hierarchy, it’s vault. Vault is not traditionally Oregon State’s event, and this year the lower SV have exacerbated the issue with all those fulls struggling around the 9.750 territory. Sticking shoes will be absolutely critical because even though a huge score on vault is no longer the must it used to be, you still can’t win a big title with a sub-49 vault.

Rotation 3: Utah vault, Oregon State bars, UCLA beam, Cal floor

Event RQS through 3 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 3):
Utah 148.000 (49.245)
UCLA 147.590 (49.240)
Cal 147.485 (49.230)
Oregon State 147.410 (49.260)

And now the inverse of rotation 2. The RQSs in this rotation are very closely packed, which would suit Utah quite nicely. Utah would love every team to score around the same total in the 3rd and maintain the pace set in the previous rotation. The issue for Utah is the potential for other teams to put up big performances, since Utah’s peak vault score is 49.275, while OSU and Cal have gone into the 49.4s on bars and floor respectively, and UCLA can and has hit 49.5 on beam.

UCLA beam is not quite the force we expected it to be when presuming a healthy Peng (how silly of us), but Francis, Ohashi, and sometimes DeJesus can still deliver the numbers and Gerber has been a worthwhile leadoff this year. The Bruins are far better on beam than that 49.240 RQS suggests and will have to deliver on that potential (multiple tenths over the RQS) to expect a conference-winning total. Utah’s vault would not be able to match the scores coming from a nailed UCLA beam. While Utah is probably the best-vaulting team in the conference, that’s a bit like being the best listener at a school for the deaf. It hasn’t been a banner year for Pac-12 vaulting, and like the others, Utah has a lot of fulls getting stuck at 9.825. I like the lineup decision to put Delaney after Hughes because I still maintain it has the potential to bump Delaney up to a 9.950 for a stuck landing on the back of Hughes’ 1.5 and 10.0 SV, but Delaney has to stick. She hasn’t been sticking as much this season, so it’s basically impossible for her to do much better than the 9.875s she’s been scoring. Graduations and SV changes have conspired to sap Utah of all its vault 9.9s.

Oregon State’s bars have been an interesting animal this season, just in case you haven’t checked in for a while. Earlier in the year, bars looked like a struggle event with some serious dismount crazies bringing down the scores, but lately it has returned to being OSU’s strong apparatus the way it always should be. McMillan and Jacobsen are quite precise for possible 9.9s at the back of that lineup (I would say the most likely 9.9s the Beavs have across all the events), which must be taken advantage of if this is to be a serious score. Beyond trying to contend for the title, a strong score is essential if they’re to move out of #3-seed territory. It will take a 196.675 in this meet for the Beavs to have even a remote shot at a #2 seed, and that score would be built on bars 9.9s.

Cal is also fighting for a #2 seed but currently sits in 11th and therefore is working from a position of strength. The Bears can guarantee that #2 seed with a 196.475, which is quite doable as long as floor cooperates for something over 49. This is the event where Cal most takes advantage of Toni-Ann Business and the realistic 9.950 she can bring to send the score in a stratospheric direction. Add to that a double arabian from Robinson, a couple other deduction-minimal double pike routines, and an overall commitment to non-lame dance combinations (that doesn’t show up in the scores but I appreciate), and this should be Cal’s best-scoring event of the night.

Rotation 4: Cal vault, Utah bars, Oregon State beam, UCLA floor

Event RQS through 4 rotations (Event RQS for rotation 4):
Utah 197.395 (49.395)
UCLA 197.020 (49.430)
Cal 196.670 (49.185)
Oregon State 196.555 (49.145)

Note that these are the totals of the four event RQSs, not the teams’ overall ranking RQS.

None of the teams should be particularly distressed by where they finish the meet and all will feel, to varying degrees, like they can pick up ground on the final apparatus should that be necessary. Perhaps with the exception of Oregon State because of beam reasons, but BeaverBeam hasn’t been particularly terrifying the last few weeks. With Gardiner and McMillan, who both have creative and crisp routines, Risa Perez who has Risa Perez things going on, and the Colussi-Pelaii, we should have fairly high expectations for Oregon State here. More than some unmemorable 49.1.

Now, let’s talk about Cal’s vault because I suddenly have a lot of feelings about it starting now. Cal is the #2 vaulting team in the conference and among all the teams in the country, probably deserves the most credit for quickly and effectively adapting to the new SVs and using them to their advantage. They have a Tsuk full and a handspring-handspring pike (and a 1.5 occasionally for Williams), but on the negative side, they’ve also committed some serious counterfeit yurchenko arabian fraud in a couple instances. Seilnacht’s vault scores have been weirdly high, leading me to believe that she has been getting credit for an arabian, even though it’s definitely a yhalf. With four judges, in a championship scenario, are they finally going to crack down on some of these counterfeit arabians? Could be influential. And we all agree that vault needs to go down to a 9.950 next season, right?

Similarly to Utah, we’ll have to keep an eye on how UCLA’s floor is being evaluated compared to regular-season meets, but the Bruins do have the advantage of ending on floor in a way that might resemble a regular-season dual meet. We’ve seen DeJesus, Francis, Cipra, and Bynum all go into the 9.9s this season, which they’ll hope to use to zoom out of reach of Utah, in spite of Utah boasting quite competitive bars scores. The Utes have shown superior finishing positions in full turns this season to minimize some of the handstand deductions that smack the other teams, and when that is paired with stuck dismounts, the scores can go quite high, which is why that RQS verges on 49.4. Bars, however, is not as high scoring as floor this season overall, so UCLA will look to gain ground here and really should be the strongest team at the meet in both the 3rd and 4th rotations. We’ll just have to see if that’s enough to make up for the 1st and 2nd rotations. Or if Stanford has rendered the whole thing moot.


Washington, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State

Since this is the Stanford session, it seems only appropriate that I use this section to nerd out a little bit. 

Because we have a title contender in the early session, a lot of focus will be placed (by me and maybe other people, but mostly me) on score building and whether the scores are being kept down in the first session so that they can rise in the second session. Scores being held down in earlier sessions and rising in later sessions seems to be the conventional wisdom in gymnastics, as we hear this theory every year in both elite and NCAA, though it’s very hard to make a compelling, evidence-based argument that it’s actually happening. At conference championships, the scores do indeed tend to be lower in the first session, but the teams are also weaker, so it’s impossible to attribute that to score suppression with any authority since the quality of the teams is the most significant influence there. A better indicator would be the national semifinals, where the scoring capabilities of the teams should be relatively equal between the early semifinal and the later semifinal. Let’s take a look!

This is the average score of the three teams advancing to Super Six (to weed out teams counting falls that might skew the numbers down artificially) from each semifinal session at nationals over the last six seasons. 

Semifinal #1: 197.375
Semifinal #2: 197.192

Semifinal #1: 197.300
Semifinal #2: 197.467

Semifinal #1: 197.417
Semifinal #2: 197.250

Semifinal #1: 197.242
Semifinal #2: 197.492

Semifinal #1: 196.658
Semifinal #2: 196.700

Semifinal #1: 196.683
Semifinal #2: 196.642

Semifinal #1: 197.113
Semifinal #2: 197.124

It’s admittedly a very small sample size, but it’s enough to demonstrate that arguments of score suppression in earlier sessions don’t really have a recent factual basis. All of which is to say, there’s not necessarily a reason to think that Stanford will be held down in session 1 or is a less compelling contender because of this placement. At least heading in. We’ll see how we feel after Price gets a random 9.825 on bars.

With any kind of hit meet, Stanford should win this session in a landslide (potentially by close to a point) and will just have to wait and see what the evening teams produce and whether the total can be bested. Rest assured that Jim has already prepared all his golf analogies about Stanford setting the mark in the clubhouse.

Stanford competes in Olympic order, so the good parts will be bookended by the bad parts. Stanford’s most realistic path to a competitive pace will be to go over 49.2 on vault and floor and over 49.4 on bars and beam, which is about what happened during the season-high performance at UCLA two weeks ago. On vault and floor, that pretty much means everyone needs to make sure to go 9.825 and then Ebee gets a 10, fixing everything. It’s doable. But, as it is and always has been, through rain and shine and graduation, Stanford’s really events are bars and beam, and that’s where the winning would need to happen. I mentioned in the season previews that I was worried about Stanford on bars because there are exactly six usable bars workers on this team. Well, those six have managed to endure through the whole season, and with Price, Hong, and N McNair all able to warrant 9.9+ scores (even though it’s tougher for McNair in that first spot), bars remains a strong event that shouldn’t have to endure 9.7s of the type that have brought low vault and floor. 

Beam is pretty much the same as bars, though with several more lineup options. I also do have to credit Stanford’s smart rotation order on beam this year, putting Price and Hong in the 3rd and 4th spots. I like. Because they’re Price and Hong, they’re able to get the big totals anywhere in the lineup, pushing up the scores for Daum and Chuang in the last two spots and allowing them to get 9.9s they wouldn’t be scoring otherwise. Those 9.9s going to Daum and Chuang are a big part of why Stanford remains 49.5 capable on beam this year in spite of bleeding quite a bit of beam talent from last year’s roster that hasn’t really been replaced. 

I didn’t forget you, others! The Washington Huskies are having their best season in quite some time and are hosting the meet, which usually spells a massive performance in a championship meet. That doesn’t mean challenging for a victory, but I would not be surprised by another strong mid-196, which would be particularly valuable since Washington is another team in a seed fight, currently sitting at 17th with Stanford and Iowa lurking just behind. Since both Stanford and Iowa have higher maximums, Washington could get bumped down into the 19-36 pit-of-peasants territory regardless of performance, but a strong 196 would make it much tougher, particularly on Iowa. Iowa will have already competed by this point, so we’ll know exactly what Washington needs to do when the session begins.

Arizona is also mathematically capable of moving into that top 18, but it’s looking pretty unlikely and would require a whole heap of meltdowns from Stanford, Washington, and several others. Arizona is usually pecking around that 3rd-seed section, so Tabitha’s first season in charge has been relatively in line with what we expect from Arizona, if not breaking any molds. Although it should be noted that attendance is WAY up at this season, increasing 69% over last year, which is probably the most encouraging change we’ve seen from the new regime. It took a little while for the team to find its way, particularly adjusting to staying competitive on vault, but we’re seeing consistent 196s now. A mid-196 is a pounce score, the kind of score it takes to pounce on a better team’s mistakes at regionals, so let’s see if Arizona can turn those 196.2s into 196.6s this weekend.

And there’s Arizona State.

What a hitter.

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