The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Pac-12 Championship Preview

IT’S CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON KIND OF.

Sure, the conference championships tend to mean more to the teams themselves and school-specific sports supporters than they do to gymnastics people (so…you were the best team…in a small, vaguely geographically based collection of…other teams? Hoorrrrray?) but we’ll take it. We’ll take it to the bank. Non-mattering-meet exhaustion has more than set in at this point. This time it kind of matters!

So, let’s try to get the excitement flowing with a little preview.

Pac-12 Championships
Afternoon session – 1:00pm PT
Evening session – 6:00pm PT

SESSION II

For the win
Ever since Utah joined the Pac-12, the conversation heading into the conference championship has been pretty similar. Utah versus UCLA, where UCLA has the talent and the scoring pedigree but is also kind of a garbage barge sometimes and might not bring it on the day to make things as close as they should be.

(And then we also respectfully allow for the possibility of the semi-occasional Oregon State “SUP MONKEYS” showing, which is likely out the window this season with OSU in the first session.)

This year, the overall shape of the meet is the same but the internal title dynamic has shifted by minor degrees. In 2018, UCLA ranks ahead of Utah by three tenths in overall RQS, as well as on all four events, and hasn’t displayed quite the same tendency toward CLANG every third meet that we typically expect from this team. For the first time since 2012, UCLA is making a legitimate argument as a top-3 team and a first-tier national title contender, all of which combines to mean that UCLA is supposed to win this meet.

Is it for real, though? Is UCLA really top-3 good? Or, is that ranking just a function of reputation-scoring and a few really excellent routines that paper over some other weaknesses that do not befit a national title winner? That’s a legitimate, still-unanswered question, and one that will be answered with a little more fervor one way or the other after this championship. If the Bruins are to be first-tier title contenders heading toward St. Louis, they’ll need to win this meet and show that they’re clearly superior to another high-level Super Six contender in Utah (in front of the same judging panel, neither at home). Otherwise, this is just another 2017 with 2017-level expectations.

It has been multiple paragraphs about UCLA now with no mention of vault, so obviously time to remedy that. In the last couple meets, UCLA’s vaulting has been excellent and almost entirely stuck. That, more than anything else, has bolstered UCLA’s title credentials. If the Bruins continue vaulting like that, they can erase what previously looked like a disqualifying weakness in the national conversation: a lack of difficulty on vault. At the same time, because the Bruins have just the two 10.0 starts, they essentially have to stick-stick-stick every single vault, every single time to keep up these scores. That seems untenable. Are they really going to continue sticking five out of six vaults in all the remaining meets? You can’t expect a third-up, non-stuck full to get out of the 9.8s in real life.

As for Utah, the Utes will be right there. Derrrr. It’s probably oversimplifying things to express Utah’s title chances as dependent on UCLA making mistakes, as happened when the two teams met in February, but if UCLA shows up and is fantastic, that probably decides the meet regardless of what Utah does. Yet, if a couple little UCLAish things crop up, if those vaults aren’t stuck anymore, and Kyla leg-up wobbles on her aerial and also gets deducted for it this time, and Dennis’s floor isn’t that one time it was amazing, then the favorite status reverts back to Utah.

For Utah, the path to victory is through sureness. Utah shows more difficulty on vault than UCLA and probably should be the better of the two teams there, but must have the Tessen and MMG landings under control to take advantage of that. Vault is also the only event on which Utah will be competing after UCLA (and every other team), making it the one place where Utah seems best poised to take advantage of score building. Sticking is then all the more important.

You’d also pick Utah as the team more likely to stick 4-5 landings on bars, which could prove an advantage over a UCLA lineup with a tendency toward 9.825ishness in the middle (we’ll all be on Kocian-watch, but that itself could be a risk). Even on beam, where UCLA should have a real edge with its 9.950-a-thon, Utah will hope to use bam-bam solidity to woo a judging panel.

That’s how Utah has won this title three of the last four years: “Bam-bam-bam, we’re not an actual mess, the end.” And that’s how it would happen again if it happens.

The 197 sisters
Washington and Cal will join UCLA and Utah in the evening session, where the goal will be to put up a full hit for a semi-low 197, and then what if maybe both UCLA and Utah implode?

Because our hit expectations for UCLA and Utah are in the high 197s—and Cal and Washington in the low 197s—it would take misses (or a couple half-misses) to change the preordained hierarchy, but we’ve seen that happen before.

Beyond winning, Washington and Cal will seek to solidify what currently look like “hey, we’ll take it” regional seedings. For Washington, sewing up a spot in the top 10 and avoiding the 1-12-13 and 2-11-14 regional blender will take 196.600, very doable with a hit performance. Ranked third in the conference, Washington had the honor of picking third in choosing its rotation order at this meet, electing to start on floor and end on beam. That’s an order most teams hate (more because of starting on floor than ending on beam) but Washington loves it because beam is Washington’s floor. It’s where the team performs best and can most take advantage of end-of-meet crack.

Also essential in Washington’s quest for a spoiler-able score will be sticking the crap out of vault. Like a mini-UCLA, Washington can’t necessarily rely on vault for national competitiveness. Sometimes that rotation starts with Monica Riley getting 9.725 for unclear reasons and then everyone else gets stuck in the 9.7s too, which can make Project 196.6 a little tricky. Getting by with 9.8s there allows the other events to do their jobs and bump the total into the 197s.

Cal’s quest to stay in the top 10 may be a little more difficult (requiring 197.150), but that should still be in the realm of attainable with a hit competition and a full-strength Toni-Ann. When it comes to Cal, the discussion isn’t really about strong and weak events because Cal has a very competitive group of final few routines on each event that should be going 9.9s on a good day—whether it’s Williams’ vault/floor, or Robinson’s vault, or Seilnacht’s beam, or Schank/Kuc on bars.

For Cal, questions of competitiveness revolve more around whether those 4th-6th-best routines on each event are getting out of the 9.750s (or are, you know, hit). If it’s one of those days where the first three floor routines are all fine rudis for 9.775, then it will be difficult to get into the 197 zone. But, if the baseline score for those early routines is more like 9.825, then Cal does have a little more BIG at the back of a couple lineups, which can help outpace Washington in the meet-within-a-meet between the two of them.

For the second session, here are the RQS benchmarks to watch to see what each team “should” have after each rotation.

Rotation-by-rotation RQS
Rotation 1 – UCLA vault, Utah bars, Cal beam, UW floor
1. UCLA – 49.435
2. Washington – 49.350
3. Utah – 49.320
4. Cal – 49.170

As long as UCLA has the lead after rotation 1 the team will be pleased because that means the vault landings were at least passable. It’s also a critical rotation for Washington’s spoiler hopes because of the sheer size of floor scores compared to the other events. Everyone has to take a juicy hunk of scores on floor.

Rotation 2 – UW vault, UCLA bars, Utah beam, Cal floor
1. UCLA – 98.860
2. Utah – 98.635
3. Cal – 98.425
4. Washington – 98.420

By the halfway point, things theoretically should have settled into the overall pattern we expect for this meet. Watch for whichever of Cal or Washington is ahead at this point. It’ll be telling since they’re supposed to be about tied.

Rotation 3 – Cal vault, UW bars, UCLA beam, Utah floor
1. UCLA – 148.415
2. Utah – 148.155
3. Cal – 147.675
4. Washington – 147.635

Utah must make things closer than this after three events, with UCLA ending on floor and Utah on vault. Don’t expect UCLA to fall apart on floor again. The Utes will hope to use their own floor in the third rotation to take the lead at this point.

Rotation 4 – Utah vault, Cal bars, UW beam, UCLA floor
1. UCLA – 197.975
2. Utah – 197.565
3. Washington – 196.965
4. Cal – 196.895

The event RQSs provide a larger separation between UCLA and Utah than the total meet score RQS does, though the opposite is true for Washington and Cal, where the event RQSs close the gap between them.

SESSION I

The leader
There’s really not much at all separating Oregon State’s gymnastics from that of Washington and Cal, other than a tenth here and there during the season that kept the Beavs in the afternoon session.

Because of that, expectations for Oregon State’s final total score are a little lower solely because of the session placement. Will the vault judges try to keep their scores tighter when OSU starts there, knowing they have 800 billion more Yfulls to see that day and wanting to allow themselves a range to separate them? Will the floor judges be willing to go 9.950 for Lowery and Yanish, knowing there’s a whole subdivision of floor routines they can’t wait to shower with 11s later on? It’s hard to say. Maybe, in which case it would be hard for OSU to get a score that challenges the night session. At the same time, crack. So who even knows anymore.

If the afternoon is judged with the same lens as the evening, then Oregon State has the assets to score with Cal and Washington and get that semi-low 197 spoiler score. OSU has a couple difficult vaults it can throw out there, the ability to stick a spate of DLOs on bars, and those potential big numbers at the end of floor lineup to boost the total.

That total is important. Oregon State currently sits in 11th but could drop out of the #2 regional seeds if things don’t go well (or if they go really well for other teams). A hearty 196 here probably erases any chance OSU drops into the #3 seeds, which is a significant goal in addition to placement within this meet.

What is happening here?
The two teams expected to fight it out for 6th and 7th here arrive from very different paths. Arizona State is thrilled not to be the weakest team in the Pac-12 this year, and for the first time in a long time, has something tangible to fight for at the conference championship rather than just hoping to be not last. Playing a true spoiler role is out of reach, but playing podium-crasher is not (think Cal 2014), provided ASU returns to the kind of mid-196 score we saw in the middle part of the season.

If it’s a really good day, the score to watch for Arizona State is 196.725. That’s the number required to clinch a regionals seeding regardless of what anyone else does, which would be huge. No one picked that before the season started. CLB and some late-lineup pretty on beam are what could bring ASU into that 196 zone, though with these lineups, you feel that the Sun Devils are just one more good freshman class away from being truly, truly competitive.

Speaking of not quite having the routines to spoil, Stanford. Because Stanford doesn’t have anything riding on the team score here, the primary goal is to get Elizabeth Price the Pac-12 AA title, no matter what anyone says about team and sisterhood. It’s a difficult prospect to do this from the early session, but she certainly has the routines to get the highest score in the conference from any position.

As for the team result, Stanford has the three-event gymnastics to perform close to that UW/Cal/OSU group: five solid-enough vaults followed by Price’s auto-9.9, some quite good beam routines (an event that should develop into the real strength for this new Stanford generation), and a couple big floor routines to end that lineup and drive up the scores.

And then also bars is an event. There, Stanford has two routines, which means that even when six people go, the risk of counting 9.6s is quite high. That drastically undermines hopes for anything close to a 197. A mid-196, though, would be a very good result and could see Stanford jump ahead of a number of other teams should those teams have a problem.

The Arizona situation
If you’re me, the thing you’re most interested in at the Pac-12 Championship is Arizona’s performance. Arizona currently sits in 37th, one spot out of regionals, and will not be able to guarantee itself a spot at regionals even with a season high. Though a season high sure would help, and being at home may be the twist necessary to get there.

Arizona needs to score 195.975 to have any shot at extending its season, something that has happened only twice this year, so that’s already a tough minimum standard. And it’s only part of the task. After that, Arizona would have to hope teams like CMU, Iowa, Utah State, and North Carolina also have bad ones in order to sneak into the top 36.

Watch those scores.

 

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