And so we arrive at the last, the infamous 6, 7, 18 regional. This regional has a reputation of being the easiest and least interesting of all because it contains the weakest of the #3 teams and therefore should provide the most straightforward qualification road for the #1 and #2 teams. This reputation exists for a reason. The #6 and #7 teams had advanced every single time since 2004…until last year, when Stanford came in as the #18 team and upset everything.
April 1, 4:00 ET/1:00 PT
Teams (starting event)  Alabama (bars)  Michigan (vault)  Southern Utah (bye before floor)  George Washington (bye before bars)
 West Virginia (beam)
 Kent State (floor)
The favorites – Alabama and Michigan Alabama and Michigan are supposed to qualify here, and with hit meets, they will. The high score on the road for any of the other teams in the meet is 196.725, a number that Michigan has bested in five consecutive meets and Alabama has bested in seven consecutive. We’ve seen both teams have struggle-bus meets this year, Alabama with that weekend of 195s and Michigan with some early road debacles, but those were centuries ago. It’s the kind of situation where you hear people use optimistic yet baseless cliches like, “we’ve put those mistakes behind us,” which is true right up until it isn’t.
Still, qualification is in the hands of the top two seeds, and both would have to mimic those struggle-bus meets and count a fall in order to throw this chance away. That statement will provide Michigan with panic flashbacks as the case was exactly the same last year, then Michigan counted a fall on beam and still missed nationals by only .050 in what otherwise would have been a smooth and relaxed qualification journey at home.
For Alabama, SECs proved a fine yet somewhat disheartening experience because they hit a solid 197.400 and didn’t count a mistake, yet still ended up 0.675 behind LSU. Not all that encouraging in terms of title prospects. Alabama needs to perform a little closer to the leading teams during regionals and should be able to improve on an SEC performance that featured a couple dropped falls and weak floor landings. We’ll also need to watch the McNeer situation. She was fitted with her robo-wrist in time to return on beam at SECs, but a best-level Alabama would have her on more than one event. They’ve reconstructed that bars lineup quite a lot recently, the latest move being to take out Sims in favor of Guerra, a solid call, but ideally McNeer would have that spot. Continue reading West Virginia Regional Preview→
Welcome to Pac-12s Part Deux: Megan’s Revenge, the thrilling summer blockbuster in which Utah will try to beat UCLA for the first time in 2016 following two consecutive losses in what feels like their fifteenth meeting of the season.
Repetitive matchups are one of the problems I have with creating a bracket for the postseason, in addition to the fact that it’s not a true knockout event and doesn’t have enough rounds for a bracket to be all that necessary. (It should be a true knockout event, but it isn’t. The meets are best 2 out of 6, or 3 out of 6, which isn’t the same thing and is fundamentally less dramatic. You don’t get a bracket until you institute a format that lends itself to a bracket. You don’t get dessert until you eat your vegetables.) You might as well just list all the teams at the beginning of the season in two columns, put a box in the middle for the winner, and say, “It’s a bracket!” It’s not a bracket.
This will be the third meeting of the season between Utah and UCLA (and their third each against Washington, though at least they were in different sessions at Pac-12s). If they both do qualify, the semifinals will be their 4th meeting and the third consecutive meet day in which they’ve faced off. We get it. By contrast, Utah and Auburn would have been an interesting comparison, and they probably won’t meet at all.
Competing teams (starting event)  Utah (bye before bars)  UCLA (beam)  Washington (floor)  Southern Utah (bye before floor)  Illinois (bars)  Utah State (vault)
Unlike in the regionals previewed so far, this one features two teams that really should go through barring disaster. Disasters are always possible, and always the most fun, but if Utah and UCLA hit five-for-six on each event, they’ll advance. The other teams are hoping for a mistake.
The clash between Utah and UCLA should still be quite interesting and telling about both teams’ potential to do some damage in the postseason. UCLA’s position is bolstered by the two wins over Utah this year, while Utah’s position is bolstered by finishing only .325 behind UCLA at Pac-12s in spite of counting a fall. And by being at home this time. The Bruins would counter that they also had some mistakes at Pac-12s that brought down their score, like Cipra’s floor fall and Preston’s not-in-the-face vault. And we could go on. It should be a close-fought affair. With the home advantage and the stronger scoring pedigree over the whole season (a higher RQS on three of four events), Utah should come in as the favorite between the two, though far from a prohibitive one.
Neither team has a ton of difficulty on vault and both may struggle to compete with the three-1.5 lineups of the SEC once we get to nationals, but Utah’s landings were significantly stronger than UCLA’s at Pac-12s with a couple vaulters showing season-best sticks. Even without a difficulty edge, Utah’s vault beat UCLA’s by nearly three tenths because of landings (and direction, and knees), which would be a massive boon if that were repeated at regionals.
UCLA’s edge comes on beam, with a lineup that is quite smooth in rhythm, precise in split elements, and varied in skill selection and difficulty. Utah, meanwhile, showed the signs of the Stover-ectomy in counting a beam fall at Pac-12s. It’s clear the team needs her back as soon as possible not just to prevent using a fall but to provide a much-needed 9.9.
Interestingly, UCLA beat Utah on bars at Pac-12s, even though bars is supposed to be a weakness for UCLA that compromises postseason hopes while it has been a strength for Utah. If UCLA is able to continue minimizing the bars deficit compared to a team like Utah, perhaps aided by a mysterious secret-weapon appearance of Peng or Ohashi, that would eliminate one major obstacle to postseason success. I’m not convinced yet, but it will be worth watching.
As for the rotation order, UCLA begins on its two best events, which I don’t love. It means the Bruins must get a bunch of big scores early and absolutely need a lead at the halfway point, and a pretty significant one, to have a shot at winning this thing. They’ll want a solid 98.800 after beam and floor, which is doable. The Utes will gain ground in the second half of the meet, particularly when they turn to floor as UCLA is turning to vault. As long as Utah is anywhere over 98.500 after bars and beam, even if still trailing, I would consider that on track to put up a competitive total/win. The challengers – Washington, Southern Utah, Illinois All three of these teams have proven capable of a mid-196 this year, each peaking in the 196.5-196.6 territory. The problem for them is that both Utah and UCLA would consider a 196.6 quite a poor showing. Even when counting a fall at Pac-12s, Utah went 196.9, and UCLA’s last fall-counting score was 196.8. Both favorites will have some buffer. But which of these challenging schools is the most likely to put pressure on Utah and UCLA? It could go any which way.
If we judge by RQS, Washington is 3rd on vault, Southern Utah is 3rd on floor, Illinois is 3rd on beam, and Utah State is 3rd on bars. So that helps zero. Thank you, RQS.
Somewhat in keeping with the theme of this regional, vault has been a nightmare for all of the challenging teams, and we’re going to see a rash of 48s. If Washington can in fact be the best of the group on vault, that bodes well since bars and beam really should be their most competitive pieces. With hits. Beam was an absolute catastrophe at Pac-12s, taking Washington out of the competition in the very first rotation, but the style in that lineup has not gone unnoticed. It’s only fitting when an accomplished butterfly charmer is coaching the event. There’s a universe in which Washington stays very competitive on bars and beam. I’m not sure if this is that universe, but I know it exists.
Southern Utah has been a floor force this year and will look to put up a score well over 49 there that can be ridden into the mid-196s with hits on the other pieces. Having to start on floor is unfortunate because we don’t know how much the floor scores will soar early before UCLA and Utah head there, but SUU has regularly scored 9.875-9.900s in a variety of contexts this season. Southern Utah should be leading the pack of challenging teams after one apparatus and will then look to hold on with consistency to remain in front of the peloton. Bars can be another strong SUU score, with a couple likely 9.850+s including a routine from Memory Shettles, whose name is Memory Shettles. She was an AA star two seasons ago but missed last year with injury and is just back on bars this season, though we’re seeing the shades of that success once again in her bars work.
It’s sort of shocking to see Illinois sitting all the way down at a #5 seed. Illinois is a perennial nationals contender, but it just wasn’t happening this season, even before the storm of injuries to Horth and O’Connor. That’s eight essential routines lost that most schools would be unable to replace, and Illinois is one of those schools, having to throw out a yurchenko layout on vault and a number of 9.725s on the other events. There are still highlights. Sunny Kato is a joy and 3/4 on bars and beam, Erin Buchanan continues leading the floor lineup, and Lizzy Leduc has moments where she shows that elite training even if the consistency of execution isn’t there yet. We’ll see some good scores pop up for Illinois, and a total that could verge on 196 with a hit, but with all the injuries, the lineups just aren’t deep enough to fulfill the potential this roster seemed to be bursting with before the season began.
And the rest Sorry, Utah State. You’re alone in this one. As mentioned, Utah State has been competitive on bars this season and should put up a 49 score there, but the 196s have been harder to come by than for the other challenging teams. Utah State is the least likely of the group to emerge as the top challenger, but this does mark the third-consecutive season that Utah State has advanced to regionals, following a long winter of hanging down in the bottom half of the 40s and not challenging for regionals places at all. Utah State had an absolute nightmare on bars and beam two years ago and counted a major mistake on bars again last year, so with bars such an important event for the team score this year, slaying that postseason demon is imperative to remaining in the vaguely competitive zone. Really, Utah State’s main goal will be a qualifier in the individual race, which is possible.
Individuals If we assume that Utah and UCLA do qualify as teams, then the biggest favorite to advance to nationals as an all-arounder is Allison Northey. She’s ranked in the top 15 and has proven her ability to hit that exalted 39.500 plateau. The other major player to keep an eye on is Danielle Ramirez from Southern Utah. She’s more than capable of going 9.850 across the board, and potentially higher on bars when she hits. There have also been some falls, but earlier in the season. If gymnastics betting were a thing, those are the two I would go for, but it’s not as straightforward as all that. There are some complications. Bailey McIntire of Utah State is a big one.
McIntire has gone 39.400 twice this season, including at the conference championship, and her ability to brush the 9.9 plateau on bars and floor is what makes those events USU’s most competitive scores. It’s always fun to have someone from a #6 seed to watch out for, and McIntire is a legitimate contender here.
Under normal circumstances, Illinois would have been expected to snatch both the AA spots with O’Connor and Horth, but now, individual qualification to nationals appears much less likely. It would be amazing to see Leduc sneak in there, and while she does have a few competitive scores and can stay close on one of her consistent days, vault may take her scoring potential down too low to challenge hits from Northey and Ramirez. Buchanan is probably the team’s top AAer now. She should be very competitive on floor and vault, but bars and beam can get a little 9.7y. They’re both in it, yet others have proven more 9.850ish across the events. The same is probably true for Goings, Washington’s second AA option. She’ll get a solid number, but Northey is more likely to score higher.
The top 25 schedule looks like a rather paltry affair this week, but that’s mostly because it’s heavily incestuous with most of the top teams competing against each other. So, what we lose in quantity we should make up for in quality with a few legitimate marquee 50/50 meets. It’s worth getting excited about.
Top 25 schedule
Friday, January 29
7:00 ET/4:00 PT –  Alabama @  Florida
7:00 ET/4:00 PT –  Michigan @  Nebraska
7:00 ET/4:00 PT –  Georgia @  Kentucky
7:00 ET/4:00 PT –  Illinois @ Penn State
8:30 ET/5:30 PT –  Auburn @  Arkansas
9:00 ET/6:00 PT – BYU @  Boise State
9:00 ET/6:00 PT –  Southern Utah @ Utah State
Saturday, January 30
1:00 ET/10:00 PT –  George Washington @ North Carolina
Live blogging Friday will be the usual, with special focus on Alabama/Florida since that’s kind of a massive meet. It doesn’t look like there will be live streaming of the Michigan/Nebraska meet, which is a shame, so we’ll just have to keep ourselves warm with SEC action and the cozy glow of Kathy Johnson’s sigh of dismay. I’ll then be back on Saturday to get sloppy with Metroplex, which should be the amazing, competitive, crack-smokingly-scored meet we’ve come to know and love.
Friday -We’ve got some serious showdowns headlining Friday in which the results are actually up in the air (!), so let’s get into it. Alabama and Florida is always a worthwhile experience, but with both teams at a point in the season where they’re still showing flashes of brilliance mixed with flashes of vulnerability, the outcome will probably be determined by which team can minimize those pesky January errors we’ve been seeing rather than which team is the most brilliantly, spectacularly amazing.
If both teams do end up hitting to their capabilities, give to edge to Florida for having shown higher scoring potential so far this year and (primarily) for being at home. Still, these teams are both at a level when even counting a 9.700 would change the outcome, let alone counting a fall, so there’s no margin for the Gators.
Florida’s clear advantage event is bars. The Gators devlier a much stronger lineup with several more 9.900-9.950s, while Alabama is more a 9.850 team because of scoring vulnerabilities like those double fronts. It’s unlikely that Alabama can keep pace with hit Sloan/Caquatto routines, so Florida will need and expect a lead at the halfway point. That’s especially especially true because I also give Florida the edge on vault, with bigger 1.5s (though Alabama should have more 1.5s—Beers, Brannan, Guerrero vs. Baker, Boren—which could mitigate that) and two of the best fulls in NCAA in Sloan and McMurtry, fulls that Alabama cannot match with its own. That advantage, however, is so dependent on the landings, and Florida is definitely not on stick patrol yet and giving up quite a bit there right now. If Alabama can land and minimize the two-event deficit to something around two tenths, we’ve got a real meet.
All eyes will be on Alabama’s beam after the catastrophe last weekend to see if it becomes a Georgia or not. Theoretically, I do think Alabama’s beam is stronger than Florida’s 1-6 with more pristine form and potential 9.9s, but of course, hitting. Florida has been better at hitting beam than any other team so far this year. If Alabama is to take the meet, winning beam is absolutely essential, especially because Florida ends on floor at home, a scoring situation that may counteract any lineup advantage Alabama may have on the event.
While Florida boasts the two strongest floor routines from either team in Baker and Sloan (especially in the absence of Carley Sims), Alabama has many, many more options for realistic 9.850-9.875 routines than Florida does and can use those early spots in the lineup to gain a floor edge. Much as Florida needs comparatively stronger bars scores 4-6, Alabama needs comparatively stronger floor scores 1-3. -Simultaneous with this top-of-the-SEC showdown, there will be a top-of-the-Big-Ten showdown as Michigan visits Nebraska. Nebraska is slowly making strides from the disastrous first meet, with Blanske rounding into normal form, Sienna Crouse getting into some more lineups, and Schweihofer emerging as a valuable supporting player. That should make this meet more competitive than it may have seemed after, say, the first week. Still, Michigan will be expected to win and will be expected to get a 196.9, though the potential is certainly there to break 197 finally if it’s a good day for floor landings.
-Obviously, Georgia’s beam is a nightmare, so I’m sure we’re all eager to see that because whether it continues to be a train wreck or this is the week it pulls itself back together, it’s must-see acro-series TV. Weirdly, there’s a part of me that’s pretty optimistic about Georgia based on watching the team this season, in spite of all the 195s, because the other three events look seriously good and are improving. Once beam is worked out, and it will get worked out, Georgia will be legit.
-Another exceptionally competitive SEC showdown will be Auburn’s visit to Arkansas. These two teams look pretty evenly matched at this point, with Arkansas making an unexpected early run to challenge Auburn for the underdog SEC darling crown this season. It’s a tossup right now, though it’s critical that Auburn deal with the beam issues to come out with a win. Auburn should be a better bars and beam team than Arkansas, and while that has come to fruition on bars, Auburn has looked rather uncomfortable on beam and has not used the legitimate 9.900 potential of the Atkinson/Demers/Milliet trio to gain an advantage there.
Arkansas looks farther along and more prepared than Auburn through January, very fit and with a larger proportion of upperclassman competing compared to Auburn, still needing some time to bring the freshmen along. That preparation should give Arkansas an advantage on vault in spite of lacking the big 1.5 of an Atkinson. Arkansas’s vault landings have been more controlled, which has accounted for the stronger scores, so if this meet is decided by landings rather than mistakes, that favors Arkansas. Auburn, on the other hand, has higher scoring potential as a team and should be the better side come March/April, so if we see a progression from the last couple meets into something closer to mid-season form, Auburn will have an excellent shot at this one.
Saturday -The bigly big big bigness on Saturday is the Metroplex Challenge, the annual bacchanalia of valuable away scores pitting a bunch of competitive teams against each other. In the most likely outcome, it will boil down to Oklahoma and LSU fighting for the win. Stanford has extremely impressive routines, but still lacks the competitive lineups on vault and floor to beat the likes of the very best teams. This will actually be a valuable test case for Stanford looking ahead to the postseason to see how those vaults and floor routines will be scored in front of the same judges who have just seen Oklahoma and LSU. Competing against power, it’s easier to give those Stanford floor routines 9.700s. Missouri has also started the season with a program renaissance, which will continue for a couple seasons as this is a very young group, but will be viewing this meet as a chance for a usable road score rather than comparing themselves to top-10 teams. That’s true for Washington as well.
As for Oklahoma and LSU, how do we think this will go? The rematch. It seems pretty evenly poised, and while both teams have made strides to develop their traditionally weaker areas over the last few seasons, this one looks like it’s going to come down to the old standby strengths. Oklahoma’s bars and beam up against LSU’s vault and floor.
The Sooners have had to shake things up on bars a little bit this season, but they’ve put together a pretty and capable lineup able to remain competitive in the early spots and throw out some very big scores in the Wofford spots, where Wofford goes. That’s the biggest asset Oklahoma has compared to LSU since LSU will still have to count on some Gnat and Savona routines. As for beam, it’s Oklahoma beam, and in spite of some unexpected fallsies early on, this rotation should score exceptionally well. LSU has the capability and gorgeousness to compete with Oklahoma’s beam and score just as well, but we haven’t seen that develop as yet. They’ve had to play around with the lineup, they’ve looked a little tentative, and we’re all still waiting to see the 9.950-a-thon that a Macadaeg, Hambrick, Finnegan show, co-starring Gnat, Priessman, and Ewing can deliver.
Similarly, just going the other direction, both teams have tremendous vaults, but if LSU is continuing to stick those 10.0 SVs (and rest assured that Gnat will get a 10 every time she sticks her DTY), it’s going to be tough for any team to keep pace. Still, floor is really where LSU will look to win this one with bigness. The first meet between these two teams came down to floor, with the teams exactly tied based on the other three events. LSU went 9.9-city while Oklahoma counted some 9.8s and didn’t have enough of an advantage from the other events to make that OK. The Tigers need that to happen again, whereas Oklahoma needs to develop enough advantage on the other events to ensure the meet doesn’t come down to which team’s floor rotation is the biggest and loudest. Based on the action we’ve seen since these two teams squared off in the first meet, Oklahoma has looked steadier and has shown more improvement and therefore should level the season series with this one, though it will be a battle. LSU needs big beam, Oklahoma needs big floor. Who’s going to get it?
Monday Monday? Come on. The Pac-12 is going to Monday, with Utah and UCLA both competing in meets they should win. Utah suffered a massive setback during the week with Kari Lee going down to a torn Achilles. The only silver lining there is that it happened early enough that they will be able to snatch a redshirt for her for this season should she want it, but it’s devastating to Utah’s scoring potential. While Lee hadn’t been her 2015 self so far this year (especially in the leg-event department, so perhaps now we’re all realizing what was wrong…), she was the integral AAer on this roster. Time to scrounge for routines, but those routines are not going to be 9.9s, which hurts on every event and seriously tests this team’s depth. Arizona showed impressive improvement against UCLA, with tremendous potential on bars and beam, and will look to pounce on a shaken Utah that has to throw some new routines.
Nothing much has changed for UCLA since the first meet, the strengths are still beam and floor and the weaknesses are still vault and bars. Bars has been the most variable performance so far, looking much more impressive in the second meet against Florida than in the other two, so the next few meets will be interesting to start to gauge which one is the real UCLA and which one isn’t. Cal has started the season predominately as expected, mid 195s, strong on vault and floor, weaker on bars and beam, especially beam. Toni-Ann has been the scoring leader and strongest gymnast on the roster once again, but she’s a little 9.850s compared to her 9.900s from last season, and they’re going to need her to be not just the best gymnast on the team but one of the best gymnasts in the country to try to make that leap to the nationals-challening sides.