These are the questions I’m walking around the house talking to myself about as we head into next week’s national championship.
The uncertain status of Trinity Thomas is dominating the lead-in to nationals as she officially remains in the ambiguous purgatory of “day-to-day.” If Thomas is unable to go, or unable to go on all four events, or able to go but not able to land for 9.950+, can Florida still perform at the national championship level they’ve shown with Thomas in the lineup? Or is it more of a No Trin, No Sav, No Service policy?
Florida was forced to test its ability on that front in the regional final, a meet that went smoothly enough on bars and beam with Payton Richards as a replacement but then sort of fell into a ditch on floor with multiple OOBs—and then on vault with a fall and two Yfulls—and suddenly Florida almost lost to Michigan State.
This may present a safety v. risk conundrum for Florida at nationals. Sloane Blakely is the obvious replacement choice on floor given her routine’s potential, but her five scores this year are 9.975, 9.750, 9.725, 9.550, and 7.350, and she followed being thrust into the floor lineup last Sunday with a fall on vault. Which in turn adds more intrigue to the vault lineup where Florida is already grappling with the issue of whether Victoria Nguyen’s Y1.5 is consistent enough to go with a championship on the line. Nguyen was in the initial lineup in the regional final but was pulled after Blakely’s fall so that Florida could safely advance. If Nguyen had gone and fallen, Florida would have been eliminated, so you understand the move.
But this is nationals now. If Thomas is out on vault and floor, Florida can’t expect to put up backup Yfulls or a max-9.825 on floor and win a championship against Oklahoma’s lineups. If they take the risk and hit, Florida is going to be in this for the title. If they don’t take the risk, or take the risk and miss, we’ll be left asking what exactly happened to one of the deepest and most accomplished rosters we’ve ever seen in college gymnastics.
Is Oklahoma still Oklahoma?
If you thought Oklahoma was going to show up at its home regional last weekend and score a so-gaudy-it’s-embarrassing 199.900, then you’re a living person. But that’s not what happened. Not at all.
In the regional semifinal, Oklahoma was off on a number of landings for a sub-198 (which I think is like a zero? I’ve never seen one before), and then in the regional final, it was the counting beam fall heard ’round the world that led to a 49.0 rotation score and a…still a victory. I won’t go as far as to say Oklahoma can’t afford something like that at nationals because Oklahoma started the championship last year with a 49.1 on floor and came back to win, but four of the last six performances from this team have not been at the level that should win a championship or that would reflect Oklahoma being a definitive favorite.
Which Oklahoma probably still is. They’ve been ranked #1 every single week this season (and haven’t been lower than #1 since February 28, 2022). They have eight 198s, double the number of the next closest team. But they’ve also shown just enough beam and floor vulnerability lately to give the other teams life.
Is Jordan Chiles the AA favorite?
With Trinity Thomas questionable, Suni Lee not at nationals, and Jade Carey qualified for only beam, we have a very different race for the 2023 all-around championship than the legendary battle royale we were promised at the beginning of the season.
All these absences (and potential absences) have thrust national #2 Jordan Chiles into the singular spotlight for the all-around as the only gymnast to have scored a 39.9 this season and the owner of more top scores than anyone else here. Of the 14 scores over 39.8 this season, Carey and Lee had 6 so we throw those out, and of the 8 remaining, Chiles has 4 of them, compared to 2 for Thomas and 1 each for Haleigh Bryant and Leanne Wong.
If it’s a good landing day, it’s tough to imagine anyone besides a healthy Thomas beating Chiles because of her difficulty edge. Yet, due to that difficulty, her routines are definitely not the safest 9.950s or most predictable scores. That’s something UCLA will also have to grapple with as a team in its presumed clash with Utah for a spot in the championship session. At the regional final, we saw Chiles bounce back on her double pike dismount for 9.850, which compared to Eaker and O’Keefe sticking gainer fulls for 9.950, was a meet-defining difference. The same can be true in the national all-around race, where a beam 9.850 is going to take someone out of this.
Working in Chiles’ favor could be that—almost uniquely among the top contenders—she competes in the second semifinal, unlike all the Florida all-arounders and Haleigh Bryant, who will gather in the first semifinal. That shouldn’t make a difference, but more on that later.
There’s really not too much in it between Chiles and #4-ranked Bryant (a whopping .001 separates their season averages), with Bryant a bit more likely to get the score on vault and Chiles more likely to go 9.975-10 on bars. Wong should also be considered a major contender as the most likely gymnast to get a bars-beam 20 (a Peng Slam?), but it’s going to have to be a controlled vault-landing day. A big bounce back probably takes her out.
I’d also put Kayla DiCello and Selena Harris in there as sleeper picks to win, especially if their regional performances are an indication, with four reliable routines (neither gymnast has fallen in her first season) featuring relatively minimal deductions. Or, there’s Team Murder Eyes. If Oklahoma shows up with full murder eyes after the regionals debacle, Jordan Bowers could win this thing out of the second semifinal, or Abby Heiskell could just go wild competing as an individual here.
Will LSU find the vaults?
While LSU finished the regular season ranked as the now-favorite to advance out of the first semifinal along with Florida, it is Cal that has been the hotter team lately, posting the top national score during the regional finals, out-averaging LSU since the beginning of March, and establishing itself as a good bet, if not the outright favorite, to make the championship.
Of particular note at their respective regional finals, Cal’s vault and floor outscored LSU’s vault and floor, which LSU absolutely cannot afford at nationals given Cal’s strength and superior scoring potential on bars and beam. The onus is going to be on LSU to find a way to turn that around, particularly on vault.
With four 10.0 starts and two of the best Yfulls in their semifinal (the two best?) now that KJ Johnson is back, LSU should be the top vault team in the first semifinal and is probably on paper the 2nd-best vaulting team at nationals overall behind Oklahoma. Yet, at both sessions of regionals, LSU ranked just 5th among the 8 nationals teams on vault. You have to think LSU will need to find the sticks from the 10.0 starts since that’s the one event where there looks like a real advantage to be gained compared to Cal. Or compared to Florida if it’s another day like the regional finals. (Or, I guess, compared to Denver if actually it’s another day like the regional finals.)
Let’s be real, no team should be more buoyed by the misfortunes of others right now than Utah. In a nice way, or whatever. Regionals cleared a lot of brush. The elimination of Michigan and the injury to Trinity Thomas have both served to elevate Utah in the national hierarchy to look like a much more convincing nominee as the best challenger to Oklahoma than it would have seemed even a week or so ago, when you confidently would have put both Michigan and Florida ahead of Utah on the list. As it turned out, Utah was the only team to go 198 on both days of regionals.
But first, to have any chance to win, Utah would have to get out of the more challenging semifinal, grouped with favored Oklahoma, the higher-ranked UCLA, and a Kentucky team that got a tough draw here but would have been your fun spoiler pick from the other semifinal. Utah has the edge on UCLA with wins at both the conference championship and the regional final, but both were also exceptionally close meets with a combined victory margin of 0.200. And though they weren’t in the same session, UCLA did outscore Utah in the regional semifinals. So it’s everything but a done deal.
Worth watching: bars has been an erratic journey lately for Utah, one in which every other meet is a 49.3. Utah survived those 49.3 rotations at Pac-12s and in the regional final, largely because UCLA threw in an iffy rotation of its own on both occasions, but Utah only just survived. A fully hit meet from UCLA where they don’t wobble all around on beam or land vaults on Jupiter probably beats that 49.3 bars day from Utah, and a 49.3 bars certainly wouldn’t hold up against an Oklahoma team that considers anything less than 49.6 on bars a grave mistake. It’s got to be a bars-stick weekend for Utah.
Does it pay to be in the evening session?
The idea that there is an individual scoring advantage to competing in the evening session of the semifinals rather than the afternoon has historically been more on the side of urban myth than reality.
But also it turns out the last time I looked into it was 11 years ago, when that child found an average advantage of .037 for the top 5 AAers in the evening session compared to the afternoon session. In the 10 national championships held since then, it has been an average advantage of .067 for the top 5 AAers in the evening session—so more recently we’ve been averaging greater than a deduction worth of advantage for the evening gymnasts, with a particular increase in recent years (last year the difference was .160).
The last two seasons have been…something different. In the first four years following the elimination of the event finals, 56% of individual titles went to gymnasts from the evening session and 44% went to gymnasts from the afternoon session. Not so different. In the last two years, however, 86% of individual titles have come from the evening session compared to 14% from the afternoon. It’s something to keep an eye on this year.