The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

National Semifinal #1: The Preview

April 20, 12:00 CT

Teams (starting event)
[2] LSU (beam)
[3] UCLA (vault)
[6] Alabama (bars)
[10] Arkansas (bye before floor)
[11] Nebraska (bye before bars)
[18] Georgia (floor)

Individuals
Brianna Brown, Michigan – AA (rotating w/ LSU)
Cairo Leonard-Baker, Arizona State – AA (rotating w/ UCLA)
Drew Watson, Auburn – AA (rotating w/ Alabama)
Lauren Bridgens, Penn State – AA (rotating w/ Arkansas)
Jovannah East, Bowling Green – AA (rotating w/ Nebraska)
Lynnzee Brown, Denver – AA (rotating w/ Georgia)
Samantha Cerio, Auburn – UB (rotating w/ UCLA)
Jamie Stone, Ohio State – VT (rotating w/ Arkansas)
Abby Milliet, Auburn – BB (rotating w/ Nebraska)

How the upset happens
Because that’s what we’re all here for. In this semifinal, we have a fairly clear separation in ranking and scoring potential with three favorites to advance to Super Six in LSU, UCLA, and Alabama, and three challengers in Arkansas, Nebraska, and Georgia.

But that’s boring. The whole point of the semifinal round is to see if anyone can knock out the favorites, otherwise we could just advance the top six right to the final. So, here’s what the bottom-three teams need to do to make it good.

Nebraska
For Nebraska, the path to the upset is more or less “do exactly what you did at regionals, and you’re in with a good shot.” Nebraska’s regional score ranks in the top three among the teams in this semifinal and reflected a performance well above the level of Nebraska’s #11 ranking. That’s what it will take for one of these bottom-three teams to advance. Other than waiting for meltdown-city to arrive for one of the big-girl teams (always possible, but you can’t assume it), making Super Six means performing way better than during the season, which is what Nebraska just did.

Maintaining that level is not a given. Taking the season as a whole, that regionals performance was an outlier, featuring a score (197.525) that’s four tenths higher than Nebraska’s previous high and outpaces the team’s RQS by a significant margin on every event. Proving that level is the new normal is still a major task.

More specifically (as opposed to just “hey, be…good”), Nebraska will have a real opening in this regional if it’s one of the good vaulting days—a meadow of stuck fulls and controlled 1.5s—which we have seen from time to time. The nation’s top three vaulting teams are all in other semifinal, and every team in this group has opened the door on vault here and there this season. You could make a solid argument that Nebraska is the only team among these six for which vault is not the weak event. That doesn’t mean Nebraska will get the top vault score here, but it’s a potential way in, a place to gain an advantage over a top-3 team.

Vault, however, doesn’t get the job done alone. Beam must be exactly as secure as it was at regionals, otherwise it’s going to be essentially impossible to match that huge 197.5.

Arkansas
Arkansas’s 196.775 at regionals put to rest some questions about the team being able to score well without relying on massive home 49.4-49.5s on bars and beam, scores that won’t come in the postseason. In fact, floor ranked as Arkansas’s top event at regionals, and the five-woman vault lineup matched the scores coming from bars and beam—a big ol’ deal. The team needed that, and it makes for a much more compelling argument for national competitiveness.

Arkansas is still capable of improving on that solid regionals performance—a lack of bars landings got everyone stuck in the 9.825s, there was a dropped fall on beam—which makes a high 196 seem doable if it’s a truly excellent day. The concern for Arkansas will be how these lineups (i.e., all 9.95 starts on vault) actually match up to teams expecting to go 49.400 on every event. A 49.250 may be a solid result, but it’s not necessarily as Super Six score, which is why Arkansas’s most likely path is to go 196.7 and then rely on a counting fall or a Michigan-at-regionals-style off day from one of the favorites to get in. Or, as we call it starting now, “Georgia-ing.”

Arkansas has reached Super Six twice in its history (2009, 2012), so the team won’t necessarily be in “just making nationals is the victory” territory heading to St. Louis. Two Arkansas teams have done it before and this year’s team has scored higher than either of those two teams, so why not? But at the same time, after last season, just making nationals is actually the victory for a team that few expected to improve this much in one year.

Georgia
In that vein, when you’re Georgia, just making nationals is never good enough. Contentment with 12th place would not fly in a  Kupoculan regime.

Still, Georgia isn’t really supposed to be here based on what we saw during the season, and the team managed to buy the new coaching staff a year-long reprieve from the most strident criticism with this result—outperforming expectations and ensuring Georgia will finish no worse than it did in Durante’s final year. Georgia’s narrative immediately shifts from “what did you expect, we were left with the walking wounded, the team was a mess, these things take time” to “SEE, we’re making the team better already! Ha!”

Can the upset train keep going? Maybe. Georgia’s 196.500 from regionals wouldn’t get it done again in this semifinal, though. It was the team’s highest road score of the season, but another dramatic improvement would be required to have a real upset shot here, at least one that doesn’t involve multiple other teams melting down. Improvement on regionals is, however, a very reasonable expectation. That beam performance was not ideal, and while there are some unavoidable gaps in that floor lineup, a normal-meet floor performance should score better than what we saw at regionals.

Those improvements are Georgia’s path to a high 196, which would have happened at regionals with a regular beam score from Babalis and regular hits on floor and bars from Dickson—three developments that are hardly reaching for the stars.

Yet, would those improvements be enough to snatch a spot over a team like Alabama that has lately proven its 197 consistency? Or will it take help too? Probably help too. It would be quite remarkable for a team so strained for depth that it has to put up just five on vault to make Super Six, but we have two of the six teams in this semifinal attempting to do just that.

How the upset doesn’t happen

Simply avoiding disaster will not be enough for the three favorites. While at regionals the plan was “don’t count a fall,” the expectations rise in the semifinals where it becomes “don’t count a 49.200,” a rotation score that can bring one of the favorites down to the high-196 upset blender quite quickly.

LSU
Anything resembling a regular performance will be enough for LSU to skate through to Super Six. Hit the meet and get the Finnegan and Hambrick 9.900s, and it should be fine.

Weirdly, the “hit the meet” project appears to be at its most tenuous on vault, where LSU has had to work against an early-lineup fall in four of the last five meets. That didn’t end up being close to a problem at regionals (LSU could have counted a fall on vault and still advanced comfortably), but there was a nervy moment after Sarah Edwards fell when Ruby Harrold had to go next, having just fallen at SECs. As has been the case for weeks, LSU’s vault lineup is still in state of flux because of the recent misses.

Personally, I think they have to go for it with the 1.5s anyway—at least in Super Six—because Oklahoma has been better than LSU the last few weeks and LSU needs to pull out every possible stop to try to win. You don’t get your first national title playing it safe. But it’s easy to see how LSU might be scared off by some of these recent falls, heading into a semifinal from which it should advance comfortably and not wanting to throw that away with unnecessary errors—especially when 9.850s for fulls would do the immediate job.

We should also address the narrative that emerged at last season’s nationals that LSU “used it up” in the semifinals and had nothing left at Super Six, allowing Oklahoma to win. As an argument, that’s a little too ambiguous and non-numerical for my taste. It’s very true that LSU was better in the semifinal than in the final, and it’s a valid argument to contend that LSU’s weaker landings in Super Six could have been the result of fatigue, but variation in performance from day to day is also normal and can be attributed to thousands of different things. The point being I don’t think LSU can make the decision to hold back in the semifinal this year or try to save energy/legs, which would be a hyper-reaction to potential burnout from last year. Must go for it.

UCLA
Like LSU, UCLA’s best method of avoiding the upset in the semifinal is to, you know, hit and expect that will be enough, which it should be unless the landings really go on vault and floor. Oh, also, do vault in the right order. That would help too.

Some of the floor landings were less than ideal for UCLA at regionals—not to a problematic extent, but something to be aware of. Watch for Ross potentially coming back into the lineup instead of Dennis because Ross has been delivering the more reliable landings and higher scores of the two. That’s a sentence exactly 0% of us would have predicted before the season started.

The big lineup development for UCLA at regionals, however, was getting Kocian back on bars. She’s doing a “this was easy for me when I was 9” routine, but it nonetheless represents a step up in scoring potential for a lineup that had been a little first-half worrisome. There’s still some risk in the middle positions and a decision or two to make (Glenn? Ohashi?), but for most of the season we’ve been focused on UCLA having the beam and floor but lacking the vault and half-of-bars to be among the firstiest first tier of title contenders. Kocian’s presence addresses the bars issue fairly well and lifts the Bruins up there.

It’s still likely that a relative lack of 10.0 starts on vault becomes a problem in trying to finish higher than 3rd in Super Six—or more accurately, it means that UCLA’s fate is in the hands of teams with more vault difficulty, who could become untouchable if they have a good day, but may also miss some landings and render vault difficulty a non-issue. That’s more of a Super Six problem, though. Vault start value should not be a significant stumbling block in the semifinals, where “advance with a clean meet” is the outlook.

Alabama
On ranking and overall recent performance, Alabama is the least locked of the top three teams in this semifinal. Recent scores have been hovering in the lower 197s, a level that would be vulnerable to a fantastic day from one of the underdogs or to just a slight miss here or there that drops the score into the 196s, as occurred at SECs. It’s not a particularly comfortable position for Alabama, a team that may have had title hopes going into the season but currently looks like making Super Six and placing 4-5 would be a victorious result.

What we’ve seen, on the days when Alabama looks beatable, is that even though Alabama has some 9.9s at the end of the lineup, it takes longer to get to those 9.9s. The 9.9s are not typically there in the second or third position the way we’ve seen from LSU and UCLA this season. Instead, it takes until Winston and Guerrero in the fifth and six spots, which keeps Alabama’s scoring potential a couple tenths lower. On better days, Graber in the fourth spot also notches a 9.9. That’s an essential factor here in this semifinal. If Graber is performing as a third 9.9+ score on most events, that gives Alabama much more buffer over the other teams and ability to withstand a threat, even if it’s a big day for a team like Nebraska.

Because Graber is newer, we don’t know her consistency as well (you bank more on big scores from Winston and Guerrero because we’ve seen them for years), but she’s going to have to perform at the same reliable level as those seniors to get Alabama an impervious score.

Since this is the semifinal of vault, we’ll also have to discuss Alabama’s vault. While it didn’t look likely early in the season, Alabama has developed that third useful 10.0 start from Guerra, meaning vault should be fine, but the fulls are still somewhat unresolved and 9.7y, which you can’t afford in the semifinal even with three 10.0 starts. No 9.7s ever. That’s the rule of nationals.

For the potential vulnerabilities that Alabama has, the onus here remains on the lower-ranked teams, not on Alabama. For Alabama, the meet doesn’t have to be special. It can be normal/medium/fine/usual, and the other teams would still have to produce something special to pull off the upset. It’s simply that Alabama is the most likely victim of that upset.


Rotation-by-rotation RQS
Rotation 1 – UCLA VT, Alabama UB, LSU BB, Georgia FX
1. LSU – 49.475
2. UCLA – 49.435
3. Alabama – 49.415
4. Georgia 49.290

The top three teams in the semifinal will all be in action in the first rotation, meaning the first event will be used to see which of those teams looks like the vulnerable one, the one that is scoring lower and could be caught. But, if they all score into the 49.4s as RQS tells us, all three will be quite happy with that start.

Rotation 2 – Georgia VT, Nebraska UB, Alabama BB, Arkansas FX
1. Alabama – 98.775
2. Georgia – 98.415
3. LSU – 49.475
4. UCLA – 49.435
5. Arkansas – 49.265
6. Nebraska – 49.250

A 49.250 is not a bad score for bars, but Nebraska can’t really be last at this point and hope the upset is still on. That’s too much ground to make up and too many teams to pass. Nebraska will want to have passed Arkansas early, while Arkansas would be quite content with going over 49.250 in the first rotation and leading Nebraska. That’s a solid position from which to work to become the upset team.

Rotation 3 – Arkansas VT, UCLA UB, Nebraska BB, LSU FX
1. LSU – 99.035
2. UCLA – 98.860
3. Alabama – 98.775
4. Georgia – 98.415
5. Nebraska – 98.400
6. Arkansas – 98.320

This is what Alabama and Georgia want. Alabama would very much enjoy being this close to UCLA at the halfway point—and all three of the top seeds would be content with the size of this buffer zone over the bottom three. For those bottom three, it’s all about which one is best positioned to snatch the upset, and if Georgia is best positioned even after its weaker events in the first half of the meet, that would bode well.

Rotation 4 – LSU VT, Georgia UB, UCLA BB, Alabama FX
1. LSU – 148.435
2. UCLA – 148.430
3. Alabama – 148.090
4. Georgia – 147.630
5. Nebraska – 98.400
6. Arkansas – 98.320

Honestly, if the meet looks something like this after four rotations—and the same goes for five rotations—its over. LSU and UCLA would have a fall worth of buffer, and Alabama would have only vault left to do–not necessarily a huge score for Alabama but not a place where you expect a disaster that gives four tenths back to the pack. Nebraska/Arkansas/Georgia can never allow the deficit to become more than a couple tenths at any point in the meet.

Rotation 5 – Alabama VT, Arkansas UB, Georgia BB, Nebraska FX
1. Alabama – 197.375
2. Georgia – 196.840
3. LSU – 148.435
4. UCLA – 148.430
5. Nebraska – 147.720
6. Arkansas – 147.660

Rotation 6 – Nebraska VT, LSU UB, Arkansas BB, UCLA FX
1. LSU – 198.015
2. UCLA – 198.005
3. Alabama – 197.375
4. Nebraska – 196.970
5. Arkansas – 196.945
6. Georgia – 196.840

Event RQS does benefit Georgia, keeping things much closer to the other teams than the final RQS rankings, which is more indicative of reality. Georgia shouldn’t really be too far back. But event RQS does tell a story of LSU and UCLA far out in front, with Alabama behind but still comfortably ahead of the bottom three.

It’s just close enough for the bottom three to be licking their chops, but only just.


 

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