The last weekend before championship season. The last weekend of only two judges. The absolute last weekend of “exploring depth.” We hope. Some teams are still “exploring depth” in May. This weekend can be interesting to watch in terms of lineups, which teams decide to use it as an opportunity to rest gymnasts versus which teams feel it’s necessary to solidify final lineups this week before the various championships begin. Most teams fall into the latter category and have been using the past couple meets to throw in some rest weeks for various elites and fragiles, but we’ll see.
For many teams that are eager to solidify lineups, this weekend becomes the final chance to try to squeeze their 90%-injured athletes into the lineup and make sure they’re good to go for the postseason. LSU will hope to get Priessman back into action on Saturday, and if she’s actually back with the good and hitting, she could be LSU’s secret weapon for a title run. If not, they’ll want know that before SECs. UCLA has also been sans about a million crucial routines in recent weeks, with Peng out, no Dejesus/Cipra/Francis on floor last week, and with the deus ex machina that’s suddenly going to make bars better somehow still waiting to appear. Um…we need you?
1:00 ET/10:00 PT – Big Five Meet #1:  Michigan,  Iowa,  Minnesota, Rutgers @ Penn State
4:00 ET/1:00 PT – Big Five Meet #2:  Nebraska,  Illinois, Michigan State, Maryland @ Ohio State
ALL. THREE. DAYS. It’s a bit of a weird one on Friday. We’re used to the big Friday night SEC clashes (or FRIDAY NIGHT HEIGHTS, as the cool kids call it), but this Friday sees exactly no meetings between top-25 schools. I’ll certainly keep an eye on the big guns like Florida and Auburn, but the absence of significant dual meets also means that this should be a worthwhile chance to check in on non-famous teams we need to see, like Boise State.
Things get slightly more real on Saturday with the qualifiers to Big Tens. But here’s something dumb: The first meet will be broadcast live on BTN. (Yay!) After that, instead of showing the second meet, BTN will be showing the tape-delayed Nebraska/Penn State meet from January. Yeah, uh….WTF? Anyway, I’ll keep it going through Georgia/Utah and then return on Sunday for Oklahoma/UCLA. Pac-12 coming through with the good ones this week.
In the top 10, we could see some jockeying for a place or two this week. Utah, Michigan, and Auburn in 5, 6, 7 may shuffle themselves around, and Georgia and UCLA could flip-flop depending on which team is less terrifying, but the real action happens farther down the rankings. (Georgia theoretically has a shot to pass Auburn for the evening session at SECs, but it’s not too, too likely. Auburn can clinch with a 196.950, and Georgia would need an Auburn miss and a 197 of its own to have a shot.)
Utah and UCLA have secured spots in the big-girl session at Pac-12s, but their companions are still TBD with Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, and Washington all remaining in contention. Stanford and Cal currently inhabit those spots, but Stanford is out of action this week. Cal needs 195.675 to pass Stanford, while Oregon State needs 195.850, and Washington needs 196.350. All attainable, which means it may come down to which two sides pass Stanford by the most. Saturday evening just got interesting.
Nebraska’s performance in the Big Five will also be critical. The Huskers are currently in 16th but have a 195.350 road score to drop and could move as high as 11th with a big result, which would drastically change the regional picture.
We’ll know more about what teams need to do to make the top 12/18 after this week because there are still a ton of different scenarios at this point, but farther down the rankings, Bowling Green is developing into a story. Bowling Green currently sits in 38th, .050 out of the regional spots, but with a meet on Thursday and another on Saturday, a serious chance to move up with some mid-195s jas suddenly presented itself. Bowling Green hasn’t made regionals since…quarter past ever?
-Florida will cruise to victory on Friday, and with the lineups looking relatively finalized now that McMurtry is in on floor, the three topics to watch in this one will be landing progress (can’t win SECs bouncing back on vaults), beam consistency after weeks of rather unexpected discomfort and falls, and how many 199.975s they’re going to get with Sloan, Caquatto, BDG enjoying senior night.
Unfortunately for UNC, the team sits all the way down in 57th right now, which is quite disappointing for a school that used to be regularly expected to make regionals. They won’t be able to take advantage of any big Florida road score to zoom up the rankings.
-A couple seasons ago, I remember noting that Kentucky’s scoring at home was much tighter than in most of the SEC for whatever reason. Shannon Mitchell would always nail beam routines and get 9.725. That has not been the case this season, with the 196s flying for both home and road teams in Kentucky. Kentucky is probably too far back from the top 18 for that to make a difference at this point, but Iowa State currently sits on 36th and would certainly take any and all available magic.
Sydney Waltz missed much of the season and has been limited since she returned, so my hopes were not high for Kentucky this season, but the freshman trio of Hyland, Dukes and Stuart have been nationally competitive and will challenge for individual spots in Fort Worth. It’s sort of reminiscent of what Miller, Harris, and Schugel did for Missouri last year and have continued to do this year, with the help of a million more essential freshmen like Porter and Ward.
-Auburn has transformed back into a 197 machine over the past month, and there’s no reason to expect that to change on Friday during the Caitlin Atkinson farewell tour costarring Demers and Kluz. Does Atkinson get her 10? This meet won’t be up for debate, but it will be fascinating nonetheless because Auburn is going up against Hot Mess State in the aftermath of VIP Cocktail Waitress getting thrown out on her stilettos. So I kind of can’t wait for that.
-Big Five meets. The Big 10 conference has 14 schools in it. If you’re new to the NCAA, welcome. You’ll want a therapy dog. Of those 14 schools, 10 have gymnastics programs, which makes it difficult to conduct a conference championship in a way that isn’t terrible. As such, the championship takes place in two sessions, an afternoon session of 4 teams and an evening session of 6 teams. Rather than using the rankings, qualification to the evening session is determined by two Big Five qualifying meets. Because why the hell not? The top three finishers in each meet advance to the championship’s evening session, while the bottom two are relegated to the afternoon session. That’s a long way of saying…that’s why these are meets.
-The first meets end up the more challenging one, featuring three of the top four teams in the conference now that Illinois decided to have a terrible season for unexplained reasons. Michigan should still clomp to victory, but the lack of Briley Casanova is becoming increasingly troublesome. She’s out with a back issue, but it didn’t sound at first like it was something particularly dramatic or serious or season/career-ending. Now, she has missed seven meets in a row, and if she’s not able to return for the postseason, Michigan drops a solid couple tenths of scoring potential by having to use backups who are not at her level. That could be the difference. Also, beam. Watch beam. Always beam.
Penn State does have some talented gymnasts in spite of everything and may be able to pull something out at home, but the race for the second spot really should be a showdown between two quite equivalent teams in Minnesota and Iowa. Minnesota has a level of star power in Lindsay Mable that Iowa does not, so if Mable is having one of her good days and not one of her bars-fall days, that may give Minnesota the edge, though Iowa has been a touch more consistent in its 9.8ishness this season. I don’t think a lot of people have seen Iowa yet this year or what makes this season different from the others, so a big performance here could make this a “pay attention to our program now!” meet.
-In the second meet, Nebraska’s urgency for a big score will be a story, but the returns of Laeng and Orel are cause for optimism. At least in terms of having enough routines to do a meet. You know, little things. If Laeng, Blanske, and Williams are all firing, this should be a romp. Illinois has the talent and capability to challenge Nebraska (in fact, I had Illinois ahead of Nebraska in my preseason rankings because of the likes of O’Connor, Kato, Horth, and LeDuc), but just as the team seemed to be getting it together finally, Horth has disappeared mysteriously in the last couple meets, exactly what the team couldn’t afford.
There will also be some interesting ranking-watch action further down the score sheet, if that’s your kind of thing. Michigan State currently sits in 34th and Maryland in 39th. Maryland is the lowest-ranked team still in reasonable contention to make regionals, and with a couple 194s still to drop, a solid mid-195 could go a long way toward catching the schools ranked above, like say, Michigan State. Both teams are in precarious positions for the top 36 and will be rooting for both a high score for themselves and a low score for the other school to make qualification a bit more secure.
-Georgia to Utah! The first meet of the weekend that should truly be competitive without the help of an implosion. This dual meet is usually very close, decided by a tenth or two in favor of the home team (you know how that tends to works out…). It’s always a little crazy and always full of a little fanciness and crack, so I’m there with all the bells on. Who can forget the famous 2008 clash when Kupets fell on beam because everyone doubted her and the name The Balance Beam Situation was born?
I anticipate a pretty even showdown. Georgia is the better vault team, with more difficulty and more 9.9 potential, and while beam wouldn’t necessarily be considered a strength for either team, Utah has obviously been much more reliable and safe and should expect an edge there. Any prognostication of a Georgia meet must begin with “if Georgia hits beam…” because otherwise we can stop right here. If Georgia’s hits beam, this should be a real competition, one that is more important for Georgia than it is for Utah because of Georgia’s need to recover from this year of falls and quest to make the good session at SECs.
If we also give Utah the floor edge because of home floor (the teams have proven fairly equivalent in floor scoring this year, with Georgia relying on a couple erratic routines that are more likely to suffer OOBs but also going bigger in the tumbling), then bars becomes the critical event for Georgia. The Gymdogs boast the highest potential scores from Jay and Rogers at the end, but Utah’s lineup is probably more complete and less likely to have a weird landing error for a 9.7. Which team has the advantage there will be decided by whether Jay and Rogers bring their good ones. Georgia must take the lead early, and honestly with Georgia going to beam and Utah going to floor in the final rotation, Georgia would basically need a full point lead after three events, otherwise Utah is the favorite.
-But that’s not all! LSU heads to Texas (Singular) Woman’s University, where the one woman receives an education, for a quad meet. But aside from Priessman Watch 2016: Storm of the Century, Oregon State’s quest to save a reasonable ranking may be the most interesting aspect of this one. The Beavs have had periodic moments of excellent this season, especially lately, usually stemming from Kaytianna McMillan doing Kaytianna McMillan on bars, so we know the necessary 196 is more than attainable. Vault, however, will be worth watching since the Beavs basically have an entire lineup of 9.750-9.800s, which has put them 22nd in the country and will render them quite vulnerable in a regionals context. Squeezing every possible half tenth out of the landings is all the more important for OSU.
-Washington is coming around on the outside on the final turn and is suddenly having the best Husky season for quite a while. That meet isn’t just about “Is Denver for real?” things because Washington might just be for real too.
-Step Up 5: The Chalk. This year’s dance battle with a gymnastics meet around it will see Oklahoma come in as a strong favorite while UCLA will be hoping for either an Oklahoma error or 49.8s on beam and floor. It could happen. Otherwise, UCLA does not have the vault and bars work this season to challenge a team like Oklahoma, but if somehow it’s close at the halfway point, anything is possible. Primarily, this will be a choreography-off. That’s what you’re tuning in for. Be honest. Oklahoma will be futilely scratching to get in on the game of viral routines that seems to be happening at UCLA on a weekly basis now but will end up just having to hug themselves to sleep with another 197.9 instead.
Also, Chayse Capps/Danusia Francis battle of the beam 10s. Yes, please.
UCLA has been dropping down the rankings over the last couple weeks and is in mild danger of falling into a more fraught regional if the scores don’t pick back up into the 197s. Even if the lineup doesn’t regain some of its structure, 197 should be the minimum expectation for this meet. The Bruins really have no business giving us another 196, but some lineup reconstruction surgery would certainly go along way toward helping and boosting Super Six hopes.