April 12, 2012

The Nationals Scene: The Bottom Four

Nationals goes by so quickly. We build up to it for weeks, perhaps longer given that we can usually assume the majority of competitors well before Regionals, and then within the span of a few hours half of the teams have been eliminated. And by the time forty-eight hours have passed, another season is over. So, it's important to spend a few moments reflecting on all of the teams now because once Nationals start there'll be no time.

I mentioned before last weekend that the tension of Regionals often produces a slew of sloppy, tight routines. But while we didn't see much free-flowing gymnastics from any teams, the number of sloppy routines was kept to a minimum, at least in relation to my expectations. So, that development gives me some hope that we won't see the same kind of disaster during National Semifinals that we saw last year, where the beam was obviously made of poison given how unwilling the gymnasts were to be near it.

And though that hope for a clean Semifinal should be a positive development for gymnastics fans, it's not such a blessing for our lower seeds, who will be relying on falls to keep their Super Six hopes alive. While I don't have to work as hard as I did during Regionals to envision a scenario where the lower seeds advance, it would definitely be a surprise to see any of these teams competing on the 21st.

So, let's take a look at our teams seeded 5th and 6th at National Semifinals.


Of the four teams on the bottom rungs, I give Stanford the biggest chance to cause an upset. In fact, if the afternoon session were not so deep, I would probably make the Cardinal my upset special given that they are the most complete team of the four I'm featuring in this preview. Floor is usually the weak event, but unlike the other teams, they have proven the ability to post a big score on each event in recent weeks. 

So, why won't they advance? The problems are severalfold, all stemming from the molasses-in-winter trajectory they have had this year. This team was bad to start the season. And by bad, I mean actually bad, not UCLA-four-beam-falls-in-January-but-we-know-they'll-be-fine bad. That they have progressed as much as they have in the last month is commendable, but it also means that they have had no time to prove consistency. They missed bars at Pac-12s and underperformed on vault and floor at Regionals, so it's difficult to say that this team could qualify with a great meet at Nationals because they've never done that. In the last two meets, Stanford has suffered five falls, so even though they've recorded their best scores, it's hard to call that peaking.

Another rule of Nationals is "No 9.7-ing Allowed." I fear that Stanford will be breaking that rule all over the place. Unless they get Pac-12 Championships scoring, they're going to incur at least a few of those on vault and floor. On vault, Hanset lands far too low and Pechanec often bounces into the stands, and on floor, I don't have a ton of confidence in the scoring potential of whoever gets that sixth spot (Shapiro/S. Morgan). These questionable routines put too much pressure on the later lineup to dig out of a hole. 

For Stanford to challenge for one of the top three spots, Ashley Morgan and Ivana Hong will have to be perfect (none of these 9.750-9.800 routines), and the anchors will have to do their jobs. The teams ranked above Stanford will be getting consistent 9.900s from their anchors, but Stanford's anchors went 9.750, 9.925, 9.825, 9.175 at Regionals. That's not good enough. 


Throughout the season, LSU has displayed a higher scoring potential than Stanford, but I give them less chance to advance because of clear weak events that Stanford doesn't have. Stanford could go 39.300 on each event (I don't see it happening, but they could), which would put them right in the qualification hunt. LSU, however, has a fair shot at going around 49.300 on vault and floor, but they just don't have the routines on bars and beam to warrant that kind of score even on the best of days. The Tigers are a power team. They always have been, and that one-sided quality limits their capability to challenge in deeper years. 

LSU is going to peak out somewhere in the mid-high 196s, which means they will be needing charitable donations from the poison balance beam fund to contend regardless of performance. What absolutely cannot happen again is what we saw at Regionals, where they were in trouble even after floor and vault because the 5th and 6th workers failed to convert for high scores. No one in the first four positions on any of the events should be going 9.900, so the scoring onus falls to routines like Hall on floor, Courville on vault, and Morrison on bars. When they are recording falls and 9.800s, LSU cannot score well enough to be nationally relevant. Courville's 9.875 on bars was the highest score LSU managed at all of Regionals, which really highlights the fragility of these lineups on an off day. 

Oregon State:

It's easy to forget that the Beavers were the second seed in their Semifinal last year and were picked by many to advance to Super Six. They severely underperformed at that meet, and their missing out on advancing by just a tenth is indicative of the overall weakness of the performances from Utah and Florida as well. What's interesting is that the Oregon State lineups have not changed that drastically from the team that everyone was so high on last year. The loss of Britney Ranzy certainly inhibits their scoring potential on vault and floor, but I am surprised at how much the graduations of Kesler and Colvin and the injury to McGregor have impeded the scoring potential since none of them were anchors or star performers. 

Like LSU, Oregon State has a couple of unimpressive events that will keep them from being competitive, but unlike LSU, one of those events is vault, which is devastating this year. The Beavers don't have the amplitude, form, or landings on that event, as we saw at Pac-12s when even that loosey-goosey scoring managed to earn them only a 49.200 with no scores in the 9.9s. If the Beavers are trying to catch Georgia in their Semifinal, they cannot afford a several-tenth deficit solely because of vault, especially because Georgia should match them on bars and beat them on beam and floor.

But even though the vault rotation is unimpressive, they should still hit that event. Their perennial nemesis, the beam, may be even more dangerous. It's not really fair to Stambaugh that she has been thrown into the beam lineup again this year when she is just not a beamer. The overall 9.825ishness of this rotation has forced them not only to compete her but rely on her for scores, and it's not going to happen. We saw at Regionals how easily 9.6s can creep into this rotation, and I don't have much confidence that they will be able to avoid those scores at Nationals.

Ohio State:

Thanks for coming, Buckeyes. I was trying to invent a scenario where I could see Ohio State advancing out of the Semifinals, but I couldn't come up with one. Sure, anything is possible, but they will need multiple teams counting falls while also not falling victim to that same affliction. Ohio State is a very consistent middle of the pack team that got the final place at Nationals on the strength of a secure Regionals performance and some friendly home scoring during the season that earned them the sought-after #12 seed in the first place.

The bars and beam rotations for this team are just average, and the floor rotation is the kind that will garner some high scores speckled throughout the regular season but will pale in comparison to the top teams once everyone starts competing at the same time. Right now, this is a team that seems content with 9.800-9.825 scores, and why shouldn't they be? Unless you're one of the major teams, those are solid scores that will produce a victorious season, as Ohio State achieved this year. But looking forward, the expectations have to grow. This first trip to Nationals since 1990 is a tremendous accomplishment, but unlike Kent State last year, this doesn't have to be a one-time thing. This team has the difficulty and talent level to expect more, so now it's time to start stepping up the schedule with more difficult out-of-conference meets and sculpting an identity for the team (though that does take time).    

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