March 16, 2016

Big Ten Championship Preview

Saturday 3/19
Morning session 12:00 ET/9:00 PT
Afternoon session 5:00 ET/2:00 PT
Championship Central

Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State

Dating from time immemorial (so, 2012 when Nebraska joined the Big Ten), the quest for conference supremacy has been a fight between the Wolverines and the Huskers, attempting to answer the age-old question of which is better, a weird tiny skunk-bear or an ear of corn. The big two. This year, I don't see much reason to change the world order.

That would have been an easier proclamation to make before the underwater hallucination circus that was that Big Five meet at Penn State, suddenly won by Minnesota and a bucket of cracky judging, but other than ensuring that we don't ignore Minnesota's 197 potential in the postseason, that meet shouldn't really change the statuses of Michigan as favorite, Nebraska as next-best-favorite, Minnesota as also-almost-next-best-favorite, and Iowa as hey-you're-a-team-this-year.  

In spite of losing to Nebraska earlier in the season, Michigan's scoring potential remains the highest among the teams in this competition, and there's a solid argument to be made that Michigan is the strongest team in the conference on all four apparatuses. At least, that's what the rankings tell us. Really, Michigan is the top team on all four apparatuses***, and *** means AHHHBEAM. As it always does.

Three of Michigan's last four beam scores have been under 49, each including at least two falls, and the team has not hit 6-for-6 on beam since February 14th. So that's not ideal. Of significant concern, the falls are coming from everyone at various times, most recently their two best beamers in Artz and Chiarelli. At this point in the season, with nine or ten realistic Super Six contenders, we're looking for any reason to doubt a team, and a month of beam falls is a reason to doubt a team. The Wolverines have still managed scores in the high 196s and low 197s with these beam mistakes, but it should take more than a 197.0 to win a major conference title in the current scoring climate, so it's quite hard to see Michigan winning while also counting a fall. Beam is up in the fourth rotation for them, so we won't truly know where the competition stands until then.

The positive we can draw from the high 196s-low 197s with beam falls is that if Michigan does hit five beam routines, we'll see a mid-197, which really should be enough to sweep up the title. Michigan has a vault difficulty edge, featuring the highest score in the country in Karas, and three floor workers in Artz, Chiarelli, and Karas who should all be going 9.900+. It will be tough for the other teams in the country to match both of those assets.

Coming off two straight 197s, however, Nebraska looks the most likely team to do it, having regained the potential to challenge a hit meet from Michigan by restoring a modicum of depth in the last couple weeks. This long-awaited return to the 197 club has been marked by a sudden and somewhat unexpected influx of floor 9.9s, particularly from gymnasts who had not been floor stars in previous seasons like Breen and Laeng. The Huskers are still forced to use some backup routines they would rather not be, particularly on bars, which means a higher potential for 9.700-9.750s. Danger-zone scores. The situation on bars has been exacerbated by Jennie Laeng's elbow injury. She's by far their best bars worker, but in spite of returning on the other three events, she has remained out on bars, which depresses the scoring potential.

Very uncharacteristically, vault has been the weak event for the Huskers this season. Normally, Nebraska is able to rely on fantastic blocks to stick a bunch of fulls and overcome possible deficiencies on other events, but vault has lagged behind the others this season, often barely breaking 49 and putting the Huskers all the way down at 18th nationally. Nebraska begins the championship on floor and vault, so we'll know a lot about how competitive they'll be rather early on. If Nebraska isn't at a good 98.600 after two rotations, I have a hard time envisioning them beating a hit meet from Michigan. But with a 98.600+, we've got a thing. That should be at least where Michigan is after two events (vault and bars), and with Michigan finishing on floor and Nebraska on beam, Nebraska would need a lead heading toward the end of the meet.

Minnesota, huh? This is an intensely important season for the Gophers since it's the last stand of Lindsay Mable, Hanna Nordquist, and Maddie Hanley. Next year, we're going to have some questions. Those questions all begin with "who." Mable, and Nordquist's beam, can lead Minnesota to a competitive score, and as we saw last weekend, the Gophers are capable of beating the top teams in the conference.

(This isn't from last week. Just deal with it.)

Expecting a repeat of that victorious 197.4, particularly that 49.675 on beam, however, is unrealistic in a normal meet. More likely, Minnesota is going to be in the solid-196 hoping-to-take-advantage-of-mistakes category. Minnesota is a pretty beam team, an entertaining floor team, and can score solidly on most other events on the right day, but they probably lack the vault difficulty and bars consistency to make another huge 197 run under sober circumstances. A real bars hit for over 49.2-49.3 in the first rotation would be a signal that something's going on.

Also keep an eye on Lindsay Mable for the conference AA title. Could be a good one between her and Karas and Artz (if everything's OK after last week's bizarreness).

Because of the qualification rules, we've ended up with a scenario where the next two strongest contenders, Iowa and Illinois, have been relegated to the morning session, while Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State will compete in the afternoon. So a few notes on those three first.

Penn State did score 197 at the Big Five meet (at home), shattering their previous season best by nearly a point and making some marked improvements, including but not limited to hitting five beam routines in the same week. Amazing how much better the score looks when that happens. Highlights like Nicole Medvitz's form and Kiera Brown's bars and sudden 2016 beam resurgence (that makes Georgia want to go, "OK, just kidding...") may lead PSU to a relatively competitive score, but challenging the top teams is highly unlikely. With regionals qualification already assured, there's less on the line here other than setting up for a regionals-upset push by showing another hit beam and a dangerous total.

It's a very similar story for Ohio State, just with fewer likely 9.9s, which makes that last-ditch push for a high 196 less realistic.

Michigan State also pulled out a relatively magical performance at the Big Five meet to beat the odds and get into this session, though this meet for the Spartans is not about challenging for a title or moving toward a regionals upset bid. It's about getting to regionals. In that respect MSU's performance is more important than that of any of these other teams. Michigan State currently sits in the dreaded 36th spot, vulnerable to being knocked out of regionals depending on how things play out on Saturday. Maryland (competing in the first session) is one of the teams looking to move ahead, so after Maryland's performance earlier in the day, we'll have a better sense of what Michigan State needs to score in order to advance. As of this moment, it would take a 196.250 to clinch qualification, which is a lot to expect. The Spartans finish on floor, by far their highest-scoring event, which could be a benefit if this season's tendency toward late-meet floor extravagance in the scores continues into championships.

Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers

I wouldn't totally disregard the teams in this session since Iowa and Illinois have both mustered competitive scores this year, though competitive means mid-196s (more impressive for Iowa because that's not the expectation, while Illinois has under-performed this season). That score will not be high enough to challenge for a title, so unless one of these teams surges early with a couple 49.2+ rotations, our eyes may primarily be on Maryland's fight to qualify.

Maryland will not determine its own destiny and will have to wait for the likes of Bowling Green, Michigan State, and Central Michigan to compete later on to see how everything shakes out, but Maryland's final score will be the first to come in among the bubble teams and will dictate what the other teams need to score later on, giving us a more accurate estimate of the type of performance the others need. The higher it is, the harder it gets for everyone else.

Regardless of the result, this will be Rutgers' last meet of the season, so there's not much to say in terms of previewing the performance at championships, other than that Groden and Shank impressed at the Big Five meet. Both sophomores, that's an encouraging base for the next couple seasons.

I'm a little surprised to see Iowa relegated to the first session as I would place the Hawkeyes as the #4 favorite to win, and a close #4 not all that far behind Minnesota. Iowa put in a tied-for-season-high showing at the Big Five, but since that was the circus meet, it wasn't nearly good enough to make a splash. There were some OOB and landing problems on floor, and Iowa had the misfortune of starting on beam before things got really fancy later in the day. Those issues combined to shove them down the rankings. Iowa will probably have to put up too many 9.7s early in the lineups, especially on vault, to be in serious contention for a 197, but a performance well into the 196s (along with winning this session) should be the expectation.

The Hawkeyes are currently ranked 18th so will also be fighting to keep that coveted final seeded spot at regionals (allowing them to head into a regional with two other tough teams instead of possibly three). They will, however, be at the mercy of Stanford (in 19th but with a much higher maximum score). Stanford will pass Iowa with a mid 196, which really should happen given any kind of a hit meet, meaning Iowa's most realistic path to a seeding will be to leapfrog Washington, currently in 17th. That will take a 196.575, so that's the score to watch for Iowa.

The injury to Giana O'Connor at the Big Five meet was the cherry on top of the disappointment sundae that has been Illinois's 2016 season, a season that began with such a promising and talented roster. Things weren't looking too good even when O'Connor and Horth were competing, but if the team's two best AAers are both out, Illinois's scoring expectations probably drop down into the high-195s, low-196s zone, which isn't competitive enough in this group. There would still be 9.9s remaining on the team from Buchanan, Kato, and Leduc on a good day, but some 9.6s would also have to jump into lineups to fill out those spots, which is untenable.

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