Conference championships mega-day will barrel itself into us tomorrow, so a few thoughts before that happens.
Because this has to be a section of the preview now. The big news coming out of the SEC Championship yesterday was the withdrawal of Georgia due to positive tests and contact tracing and whatnot. I know. This never would have happened with Suzanne. She would have given one look at that virus and sent it immediately to Sarah Patterson’s house in a disguise.
Georgia says it will be ready to go with a “full roster” for regionals, which are at Georgia. So…you better. Georgia’s like, “We can still host you Oklahoma…cough cough.” Given how quickly LSU bounced back from a similar scenario earlier in the season, it seems plausible that this won’t be a season-ending situation. It does, however, confirm that Georgia will be an unseeded team at regionals. UGA is currently tied with Illinois for 16th but behind Illinois on the tiebreak, now with no opportunity to change that. So that’s going to be a fun round of 32. As of right now, it would be Minnesota and Denver in the same regional semifinal as Georgia with only two teams advancing to the round of 16, though expect all this stuff to change after conference championships.
Today, New Hampshire joined Georgia in having to withdraw from the conference championships, which is ultimately a far more significant development because it could mean the abrupt and premature end of UNH’s season. Again. New Hampshire is currently ranked #35 and within the advancing spots, so will retain some hope heading into Saturday, but there are so many teams that can pass with even average performances at conference championships that it’s going to be a tough wait. Arizona just needs 195.175 to pass, and Nebraska just needs 195.300, Washington needs 195.325, West Virginia 195.550, and the list goes on. If two of them do it, New Hampshire is out.
But let’s get to the teams that are actually competing.
The evening session of the Pac-12 Championship is the one I’m circling with most interest because…what are you all about? It’s not a normal Pac-12s. Cal enters as the top team, ahead of Utah, and then UCLA is all the way in 4th, behind Arizona State.
Honestly, if any of those four teams wins the title, I’m not dying of shock. Arizona State would be the most surprising—but has also gone 197.4 this season. We’ve seen plenty of occasions where these other teams do fine/medium for 197.1-197.2, so if ASU breaks out, it could happen. We’ll know early on if Arizona State is in this thing because of starting on beam. The other apparatuses have been Arizona State’s more impressive ones this season, with several meets featuring opening bars and vault rotations where you say, “hot diggety, are you going to make nationals?” Beam, however, has tended to be a little 49.0y, and it’s not likely we’ll see a team win Pac-12s with a 49.0 rotation unless Saturday is a true mess. In that season-high 197.4, ASU went 49.3 on beam, so Saturday’s opening rotation is going to need to be more like that.
UCLA is the lowest-seeded of the evening teams and technically the biggest underdog of the four (true, based on actual gymnastics this season), but also it’s UCLA. Frazier, Campbell, Dennis go 9.950-9.950-10.000 to end that floor rotation, and all bets are off. Although, I don’t think UCLA is well-served by starting the competition on floor—the team’s obvious best event and most important big score. Floor has to be a huge number for UCLA, so if they come out a little flat and 9.850y in that first rotation, it’s not happening.
Cal enters the competition as the #1 seed and numerical favorite for the title, though I don’t think I’m alone in sort of defaulting to Utah as the de facto favorite. I’m trying to parse if that’s simply based on reputation and narrative familiarity—Cal feeling like the plucky underdog compared the juggernaut Utah just because that’s always been the dynamic. I mean, Cal got a 49.825 on bars this season. Are you the juggernaut now? On the other hand, Utah did defeat Cal this season at home—and the Pac-12 Championship is basically a home meet for Utah in all but name.
But back to that exceptionally significant Cal bars rotation. Cal is ranked #1 in the country on bars (remember when I thought I was being all cool and risky in the preseason and was like, “You guys, Cal should be a top-3 bars team this season because of Gabby Perea”). A Pac-12 championship probably hinges on another of those big bars scores coming. It doesn’t have to be a 49.8, that’s not necessarily realistic, but a 49.5+ bars rotation would provide a nontrivial advantage as Utah has been stuck in the 49.2s on bars pretty much all season. Cal could ride that edge to a win.
If it’s one of those 49.3 days for Cal’s bars, however, Utah will like its chances to get close to that, and then use the other events to move ahead. Utah has more 10.0 starts on vault and will expect to score better there, and is also more likely to get that stream of 9.950s on beam. Utah is best in the conference on those two events and will need them to come through in order to win—along with avoiding starting the bars rotation with three 9.7s.
The top of the SEC pyramid looks to be a fight between Florida and LSU. As it has been for as long as my brain holds information. The typical “and also Alabama hanging around, you never know…” commentary may be at play here again since Alabama did go 197.7 at one point this season, but the remaining hit meets for Alabama have been in the lower 197s, which isn’t really an SEC-winning score. Sure, this could be another 2018 where everyone got a 2 and LSU ended up winning with 197.4, but that’s not typical of this championship. It should take a high 197.
For Arkansas, making the SEC evening session was a massive season victory in itself, so while we haven’t seen “winning this title” scoring potential from Arkansas, the opportunity exists to record a significant number to assist in postseason posturing—and show how close this team is coming to the SEC powers.
Now to the title. Florida has maintained a higher ranking than LSU all season and will enjoy a clearer favorite status than we have in the Pac-12. The key for Florida is, of course, Trinity Thomas. Thomas got injured during warmups for the final meet of the regular season, so there’s still some question about how things will go for her at SECs. And as Thomas goes, so does Florida. In two meets without Thomas over the last month, Florida went 197.500 and 197.425, compared to the last two meets with her, where Florida scored 198.275 and 198.150. That’s not all to do with Thomas, but her presence/absence is certainly the most significant part of that difference. Those non-Thomas scores, LSU will view as very beatable.
When LSU and Florida met earlier in the season, LSU had the competition in its grasp before a final-routine fall, so LSU has proven the capability to score right with Florida—albeit at a home meet that no one will pretend was evaluated with calm scrutiny. Most importantly at that meet, LSU started with a phenomenal vault rotation, which has remained the one event on which LSU ranks higher than Florida. Vault must be a huge score for LSU to win, built not just on Johnson and Bryant vaulting opponents into submission in the last two spots, but on good landing days from Shchennikova and Edwards as well.
On Saturday, LSU finishes on vault while Florida is on floor. That’s not typically an ideal rotation order, though with LSU’s potential vaulting it doesn’t have to be such a disadvantage.
LSU’s primary disadvantage compared Florida, and the single event making up most of Florida’s favorite status, is beam. Florida has been excellent on beam this season, with a number of likely 9.9+ scores peppered through the lineup, while LSU has been a little shaky, and a little 9.825y, and a little “where is Reagan Campbell”-y. LSU goes to beam in the second rotation, and if LSU leaves that second rotation with a multi-tenth deficit to Florida, it’s very difficult to see Florida giving that back on beam and floor in the last two rotations—the two events where Florida is ranked #1.
Big Ten Championship
Michigan’s 198 parade over the last two weeks has established the team as a clear favorite to win the Big Ten Championship since I don’t think there’s another team in the field that can get a 198. (The only other team that ever has is Nebraska, and that was a different time.) This thing is in Michigan’s hands.
If there’s an upset, it would come from the hosts Minnesota, who have shown mid-197 ability at times this season and certainly have the end-of-lineup routines to keep up with Michigan. If Ramler and Loper and Hooten are trotting out those 9.975s, it’s going to be a big day for Minnesota that would force Michigan to land its vaults exactly as well as last week in order to win. But because several of Minnesota’s lineups still have to get through an early 9.7 before getting to the good scores, Michigan has a couple built-in scoring advantages, and Minnesota’s hopes probably have to rest on potential a Michigan mistake. Doesn’t have to be a huge meltdown, but a mistake.
Minnesota has scored markedly better at home this season than on the road, so that could be significant, though Michigan is probably also pleased not to have to be at home as both of Michigan’s 198s in the last two weeks have come at road meets.
Iowa and Illinois join Michigan and Minnesota at the cool girls table this year and will have keen focus on the scores, a focus that grows more intense with the absence of Georgia from Saturday’s competition. Someone is going to get that last seeded spot at regionals, and it’s not going to be Georgia. Right now, it’s Illinois with a 196.300 to drop, but Iowa is close behind, though has a slightly higher 196.450 to drop. So, there’s more work to do for Iowa as they would have to defeat Illinois by a margin to move ahead in the rankings, but it is possible. (As it is for Boise State and Southern Utah at the MRGC championship, so one of Illinois or Iowa is going to have to set a mark and then watch some scores to see if it holds up.)
Big 12 Championship
This probably can still be considered the Oklahoma championship, though Denver did get close enough at a recent Oklahoma home meet to stoke the flames of hope. But the result here is certainly in Oklahoma’s control as OU attempts to best one of those 197.8s it’s currently using for NQS to try to snatch the final #1 ranking from Florida.
Actually, the team with the most riding on this event is the lowest-seeded one, host West Virginia. Currently at #38, West Virginia is outside the regional places and needs a massive result at Big 12s to jump ahead of some teams. The withdrawal of New Hampshire provides the first clear goal for WVU—195.550. Don’t get that, don’t move ahead of New Hampshire, and it’s very unlikely that regionals qualification will happen. But get that, and West Virginia will be in the race with Ball State and Arizona and Nebraska and Washington and Temple and North Carolina to see who can snatch those last 3-ish spots for regionals. Score-crunching is going to be the theme of the day (and no, I’ve never been happier) because every final result is going to change the expectations for the remaining teams, and the goal for a lot of these teams is just…beat each other and then see what happens.
Nebraska, Rutgers, and North Carolina will put up the first results in this race, so by that point we’ll have a sense of the necessary scores heading to the completion of the meets for West Virginia, then Arizona/Washington, then Western Michigan/Ball State. #30 Towson (probably safe) and #39 Temple are the only contending teams competing late in the day, so before their meet starts, we’ll already know whether there are any regional implications still at play.