March 31, 2015

Ames Regional Preview

We're into the second half of the regional previews now, and this is where the dynamic usually changes a little bit. In the top-seeded regionals, we often have one favorite and then a scraping, clawing, vicious-but-we're-all-best-friends-here fight for the next spot between relatively equivalent contenders. But in the regionals led by the 4th–6th seeds, we're more likely to see two clear favorites and then some possible outside challengers who might make things interesting if the day goes well (and by "day goes well," I mean "a big team has an epic meltdown"). The 2015 season has presented a little more competitiveness among those 16-20th ranked teams, which will hopefully make these regionals closer, but in each one there's still a clear pair that really should advance with a hit meet. Here, that's LSU and Nebraska.

Competing teams (starting event)
LSU (bars)
Nebraska (bye before bars)
Denver (beam)
Washington (bye before floor)
Michigan State (vault)
Iowa State (floor)

LSU and Nebraska

Weirdly, LSU suddenly fell to 4th in the rankings at the very end of the regular season after spending months bouncing back and forth between 2nd and 3rd. That little drop is almost entirely because of road scores, with the Tigers having not yet reached the 197.500 plateau at a road meet. That's a bit surprising for a team that is comfortably breaking that mark at home and seems to have more than enough talent to do it consistently regardless of venue. Something always just seems to go a little wibbly, like the bars rotation against Centenary or that tight beam performance at SECs. Like the other top teams, I don't envision LSU running into any trouble at this regional, but proving the ability to get something like a high 197 at a road meet would be a nice bonus.

That huge road score should be doable, especially given the current progress on vault and floor, but it will also take finding those bars landings and fully reaching potential on beam. I'm hoping the beam performance from SECs was just a "things suddenly mattered and our brains went momentarily to jelly" kind of rotation that will not be repeated, but bars remains a curious creature. With fewer huge, automatic 9.9s, and an Ashleigh Gnat routine that still makes me mostly nervous, the Tigers are in danger of giving up some real ground to the other top teams, especially Florida. But they can avoid that fate and get the requisite 9.9s to maintain a solid pace when Jordan, Zamardi, and Wyrick manage to stick. Those three routines are usually in the 9.850-but-9.900-if-you-land-well category. It's just something to keep in mind because this will be a "hit and you're in" kind of meet for LSU. Or a "count a fall and you're still in" kind of meet. 

It should also be a "hit and you're in" meet for Nebraska, though it's a less comfortable status. The Huskers have a too-recent history of being the team that has the epic meltdown and gets eliminated by a 196.025 from Illinois. That said, Nebraska has hit 197 plenty of times this year (though only once on the road) while none of the lower-four seeds have reached the 197 plateau. That means advancing is well within Nebraska's control as long as we don't discover any problems in sector beam. Beam is still an excellent-or-terrifying event for Nebraska, nothing in between, and all the 9.7s from Big Tens didn't do anything to swing the pendulum toward the excellent side. The Huskers are another team that has scored more 48s than 49s on beam this season, but the weird thing is, they've counted a fall only twice, which is not that bad. The bigger problem has been a spate of wobbleburgers from the whole team for a 48.9. They can certainly get through this meet with a mildly iffy 48.9 beam as long as the rest of the events are hit, but any kind of 48 on beam at nationals will not cut it. We need to see some budding confidence and security in those performances.

Nebraska will be going to beam in the third rotation, so that may be about the time to switch to this meet just to see how things are progressing (At some point, I'll do the master time schedule for all the rotations at all the regionals, which should be a helpful guide for the conscientious stream-flipper— especially when schools do different streams for each apparatus, putting a much bigger burden on us to keep track of when the interesting people are going on each event). Nebraska will get bars and beam over with in the first half of the meet, and since those have been the more questionable events in consistency land, we should know pretty early if we have a real competition going or not. If they're at the coveted 98.500 marker after two events, I like their chances for comfortable qualification since floor and, especially, vault have higher scoring potential. Even if the Lambert 10s have fallen off as the season has progressed.   

Denver and Washington

Denver has come on strong in the last month and a half, breaking 196 in the last six consecutive meets, so they're exactly the kind of team that should be capable of taking advantage if someone counts a fall. But at the same time, Denver often looks like that team, having entered regionals as a top-20 team in every season since 2011. Yet, they haven't broken the 196 barrier in any of those performances, always suffering a beam disaster to take them right out of it. Something will have to change if they're going to make a run at it this year. Denver begins the meet on beam, and if they manage a vaguely solid score right off the bat, they'll be worth keeping a quarter of an eye on. Especially since the next event, floor, is a strength. Because Nina McGee. Obviously. Denver will go to floor in that same third rotation while Nebraska is on beam, so we know if something weird is going down at this meet, it will go down in the third rotation.

If it does, though, keep in mind that Nebraska will have the big advantage in the last rotation, finishing on vault while Denver is on bars. They'll be able to pad a lead/create a lead by multiple tenths there.

It's a hard sell to construct Washington as a legitimate upset possibility, but I just want it so much. Yes, it would take a meet's worth of mistakes for the Huskies to emerge suddenly in a contending position, but as they showed at Pac-12s, they can get a 196 and make things difficult. That's especially true because that 196.000 from Pac-12s includes getting skewered by the beam judges on the very first event. That beam rotation was niiiiice for the first five routines, but the judges were like, "TAKE THIS SINGLE CRUST OF BREAD, PEASANTS." The total could have been higher. Beginning on floor and vault, Washington is unlikely to start quickly and should face an early deficit (98.000 at halfway would be great), but since bars and beam are relatively strong events, especially compared to the rest of the field, Washington will hope to come on strong and make a statement at the very end.   

And the rest/Individuals
This has been a very good season for Michigan State. The Spartans have spent some quality time in the top 25, which is not the usual expectation for this team. Floor in particular has been a reliable score, so that's where we're most likely to see a 49. Iowa State is another of these 6th-seed hosts who could jump up to the 4th or 5th spot if past home scores are anything to go on, but if either of the top two seeds have a problem and do indeed let someone else into the promised land, it should be Denver with an outside chance of Washington. For Iowa State, the more realistic hope will be getting Caitlin Brown to nationals as an individual. She's a real contender for one of those AA spots.

If everything goes to plan, I do think Nina McGee of Denver and Allison Northey of Washington are the most likely qualifiers, but Brown and Lisa Burt of Michigan State are not far behind at all. I expect all four of them to be in the hunt throughout the meet, switching spots with every rotation. Especially if LSU and Nebraska do end up separating themselves early, that will be the most entertaining part of this meet, so make your picks now to give yourself someone to root for. Also, if Nina McGee doesn't manage to get to nationals any other way, she needs to qualify for floor and be in that event final. Note to Lloimincia, if you need to pull it back on floor just a little bit to get McGee to nationals, then that's what you need to do.   

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