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Pac-12 Championship Preview


On to the Pac-12!

Like the SEC and Big Ten, the Pac-12 conducts its championship in two sessions, the first beginning at 1:00 PT and including Cal, Arizona, Stanford, and Arizona State, and the second beginning at 6:00 PT and including UCLA, Utah, Oregon State, and Washington.

For the rotation order, the Pac-12 did things a little differently this year, just to make everyone confused. Rather than a predetermined draw, teams were given the opportunity to choose which even they’d like to start on, picking in seeded order. So for the evening session, UCLA chose vault, then Utah chose bars, then Oregon State chose floor, then Washington was left with beam and went, “We’re all going to get 9.875 anyway, so eat that SUCKAAASSSS.”

For the afternoon session, Cal chose vault, then Arizona broke with convention and took beam with the second pick, Stanford took bars, and Arizona State was left with floor.

Session I – Cal, Arizona, Stanford, Arizona State
It’s not completely ridiculous to expect a good score to come out of the first session, a score that at least challenges a couple of the teams in the top group. The scoring potential UCLA and Utah have displayed this year should see them pull away with hit meets, but a team like Cal having a good meet and finishing third is entirely within the realm of possibility.

Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State’s season will end with this meet regardless of performance, so there’s nothing tangible riding on it. This season was all about fresh starts, new beginnings, spring metaphors, flower similes, and birth tropes following the years of Doctor R. Like when WALL-E finds that weed in that fridge. The 195s and the victory over Arizona are signs of life for future seasons, so the goal here is continuing to show those signs of life. Life good?

Stanford Cardinal
Stanford, or as it is more commonly known this season, Jesus Christ Stanford, currently ranks 7th in the Pac-12 and just lost to Yale with a 193. So the season’s going great.

Basically zero members of the team aren’t injured or dying of the plague right now, and it’s showing in the performances. It’s hard to imagine this Stanford roster being anything more than a 196.2-on-a-good-day kind of team, and yet 1) it’s Stanford. Stanford does this, then suddenly resurrects 20 routines and shows up in the postseason scoring five-tenths better than during the season, and 2) Elizabeth Price. She can single-handedly Mustafina/Iordache-style drag a team a competitive finish.

The problems with that: 1) Five-tenths better than Stanford has been scoring this season still isn’t that great, and 2) even with Price, you need four other hit routines on each event, and maybe five on beam if she’s not back there. That has been an issue. Still, if Stanford were to get four 9.825s and then a 9.950 from Price on each apparatus, that’s a 197. I don’t actually think that’s too much to ask. It’s clearly within the capability of this team, even right now with the current levels of brokenness. Just 9.825s!

I do expect Stanford to be more competitive and show more top-level routines than in the 193 debacle from last weekend, but we haven’t seen anything yet to encourage higher expectations than a team that’s happy to hit the 196 mark.

Arizona Wildcats
Arizona has suffered its own parade of injury problems that turned a team that was marching resolutely toward 196-land into a team that has been scoring mid-195s, just dropped to 30th (one spot above Stanford), and lost to Arizona State. We won’t see a score from Arizona that challenges the evening session teams, but I’d consider hitting for 196 a victory here, which should be more than attainable.

The struggle (once again) has been coming up with a competitive vault rotation that isn’t counting a bunch of 9.7s, with the added wrinkle of now straining to come up with six floor workers. Arizona will hope to use a clean bars rotation and an impressive beam team, with several potential 9.9s, to overcome some expected 9.7s on the other pieces. Because beam is a strength, it’s not too surprising that Arizona chose to begin there, but it may handicap their ability to take advantage of score building. Krysten Howard will be one of the strongest beam workers in the whole competition, but she leads off the lineup. Will the beam judges give it up for the first of 48 routines that day?

Cal Bears
It was a close-fought thing to make the evening session. There’s really not a huge difference between Cal and Washington this year and it could have gone either way, but Cal lost and now has to trudge to the afternoon session. This season, Cal has done a pretty good job of making do without Williams and Keelen. The lineups still look realistic, not like they’re being scraped together, which preserves Cal’s chances to hit the 197 mark and rank among the evening teams, at least in theory. Since the Pac-12 went to two sessions, the high total from the weaker group is 196.550. That’s not great, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that total broken this year.

Because Cal is still in the #3-seed contention zone for regionals, the actual score is important here, though it would take only 195.900 for Cal to clinch a regionals seed, which should be very doable.

Like most of the teams in this conference, beam is Cal’s most impressive event (that’s what happens when you take all the beam queens, turn them into coaches, and put them in the same conference), but this is a pretty even team across the events. They have a solid supply of 10.0 vaults and 9.850s on bars and floor as well, which is what makes challenging the teams in the evening look quite possible.

Session II – UCLA, Utah, Oregon State, Washington
It’s tempting to think of this as yet another edition of the UCLA/Utah battle that has suddenly become rather testy this season—if the live blog comment sections are anything to go by—but also remember Oregon State’s existence. Sometimes Oregon State shows up at Pac-12s and gets 197.7. Over the past six years, UCLA, Utah, and Oregon State are all tied with two conference titles.

Washington Huskies
Like Cal, Washington is capable of getting into the high 196s, maybe touching the 197 mark, and challenging the standings here. To win would require major help from the three teams ranked above, but for the most part, getting into the evening session was the victory and that’s already done. It’s a significant step and one that few of us picked before the season, opting for Cal or Stanford in this position. Evening session glow also probably gives Washington the inside track for a 197 compared to Cal if the scores do rise as we go.

There’s less riding on Washington’s total, however, because Washington is set as a regional host and #3 seed (almost guaranteed). We already know that some unfortunate #2 seed will begrudgingly have to go to Seattle and face an upset threat regardless of how Washington scores here. The focus is mostly on seeing just how much damage the Huskies can do in the standings if one of the top seeds screws up.

Beam is the highlight for Washington, and while based on precedent I don’t expect the rotation to score the same as UCLA’s, there isn’t a cleaner or better executed beam rotation in the conference. The six routines against Seattle Pacific were perhaps the most impressive beam rotation I’ve seen this season. Finishing second on that event is a real possibility, even starting there in the evening session.

They’ll have to watch the bars and vault scores. Bars can get a little nickel-and-dime-y (a less aggressive version of regionals last year) and vault doesn’t have the 10.0 starts except for Roy, which makes it easier to keep the scores down in the low 9.8s.

Oregon State Beavers
Oregon State was always supposed to be good this season (starting at 7th in the returning routine rankings) but has unexpectedly become really good, even without major contributions from that huge freshman class. It’s amazing what happens when McMillan, Gardiner, Aufiero, and Dessaints are all actually healthy at the same time. Miracle of miracles! The Beavs remain a dark horse for the Pac-12 title, not at the same position as UCLA or Utah, but the upset looms nonetheless. On the other side, getting caught by Washington and Cal also looms since all three are pretty high-196y.

A significant difference for Oregon State this season has been vault, usually a weakness, with the 1.5s from McMillan and Dessaints at least providing the potential for a more competitive rotation, one that isn’t necessarily giving away multiple tenths to everyone else. The biggest and most important scores for OSU should still come from McMillan/Aufiero on bars and Gardiner on beam, but since it’s going to take four events of 9.9s to challenge the top of the standings here, getting big vault scores from McMillan and Dessaints is equally important because it would separate OSU from Washington (and also maybe from UCLA—we’ll get to that in a second).

Because of a few more 9.7s that creep into the beginnings of lineups, the most likely outcome has Oregon State scoring well, but also a tenth or so less than UCLA/Utah on each event, staying behind the leaders but within a fall and ready to pounce on some mistakes.

Utah Utes
As always, Utah is in it to win it and enters as a realistic champion. The current competition squad is not at all a deep team, but they have endured departures and injuries to put together six useful and believable routines on each event. On bars and beam, Utah does not have the collection of 9.950+ routines to expect to outscore UCLA, so Utah’s game will be to make this a fight of VT/FX versus UB/BB and hope that it’s an even fight. They’ll have to create enough of a margin on vault and floor, where they rank ahead of UCLA, to overcome any deficit from bars and beam, where UCLA ranks ahead.

A lot of this comes down to Skinner. Her vault has the highest scoring potential of any vault in this meet, and her auto-9.900 is what separates Utah’s vaulting from UCLA’s. Her score must come through. A floor advantage may be more difficult to execute because Utah will go there before UCLA, which makes landing control of paramount importance to ensure that the Skinner “smash you in the face with difficulty” strategy holds up.

Starting on bars and beam is not a bad deal for Utah since they’ll rise toward their asset events as the meet progresses, but they must avoid the kind of tight start and form errors on bars that put them in a hole against Georgia last weekend.

UCLA Bruins
Given the sheer number of 10s UCLA has received this season (tied with Oklahoma for the national lead with eight) and the monopoly the Bruins have on 9.950+ scores, the scoring ceiling belongs to UCLA. UCLA has shown the highest scoring potential, the capability of running to the high 197s and putting up a score no one else can match, and the power to define how this meet plays out. Positively or negatively.

The UCLA outlook/strategy is pretty much the exact opposite of Utah’s, which makes this a compelling showdown. All eight of those Bruin 10.0s this season have come on bars and beam, two rotations that can beat any team in the country. UCLA must run up the score on those two pieces and create a significant margin, then go through cleanly on floor and utilize final-rotation floor scoring to maintain a lead that has already been created.

The worry for UCLA is vault. The 1.5s from Kramer and Hall are extremely risky. Risks worth taking in the postseason, but risks nonetheless. Those two vaults can’t really be counted on for 9.9s the way other 1.5s can, which means UCLA must get high scores on the fulls from Ross, Kocian, and Preston (at least 9.875) in the first rotation to avoid creating so much of a deficit there that it can’t be erased with bars and beam.

Rotation-by-rotation RQS
Rot 1 – UCLA vault, Utah bars, Washington beam, Oregon St floor
1. Utah – 49.315
2. Oregon State – 49.255
3. UCLA – 49.250
3. Washington – 49.250

Vault is supposed to be UCLA’s lowest-scoring event, and it’s far from silly to think UCLA could be in last after the first rotation. Their hope will be minimizing damage there.

Rot 2 – Oregon St vault, UCLA bars, Utah beam, Washington floor
1. UCLA – 98.710
2. Utah – 98.660
3. Washington – 98.500
4. Oregon State – 98.405

Moving to bars is when UCLA will expect to form its assault on the rankings. Utah will be hoping to limit that assault and keep a lead. If Utah has a lead after its two lower-ranked events, it will look like a very good day for the Utes heading to floor and vault.

Rot 3 – Washington vault, Oregon St bars, UCLA beam, Utah floor
UCLA – 148.165
Utah – 148.085
Oregon State – 147.620
Washington – 147.505

UCLA beam versus simultaneous Utah floor should be a fascinating battle, both expected to be strong scores for those teams. The last time we had UCLA on beam and Utah on floor at the same time…things got freaky.

Rot 4 – Utah vault, Washington bars, Oregon St beam, UCLA floor
UCLA – 197.555
Utah – 197.370
Oregon State – 196.865
Washington – 196.605

The team that finishes on floor will always have the advantage there, and while UCLA is a little more prone to throwing things away with crazy landings than, say, LSU, the other teams will want to score well enough on the previous events to keep UCLA from a lead heading to the fourth rotation.

The regular season tells us that this title will come down to a three-sided clash featuring Skinner, Kocian, and McMillan, all of whom rank in the top 7 in the AA. The favorite entering the competition will be Skinner, who has displayed the highest scoring potential of the group. We know Kocian can also get high numbers, but she will be limited by not appearing in the anchor position of any lineups and by not having a 10.0 vault, which renders her ceiling slightly lower than Skinner’s. McMillan looked more 39.5 than 39.6 most of the season, but she has stepped up the scores the last couple weeks to move up the AA pecking order much closer to the other two.

Gardiner for Oregon State and Burleson for Washington should also be toward the top of the list but likely will end up scoring more in the 39.3-39.4 range and having to rely on mistakes from others to move into a high position. Utah should also put forward Lee and Rowe in the all-around, but if Utah is having a big enough day for those two to record scores that contend for an AA title, then we can assume Skinner’s score will be even higher.

Of course, there’s the looming wildcard of whether Elizabeth Price will be able to go on beam, which she hasn’t competed yet this season. Stanford’s situation being what it is, if Price is even remotely capable of grinning and bearing a beam routine, then it needs to happen. If she does compete beam, then she moves right toward the top of the contender list, even from the first session, her scoring potential being what it is.

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