No Breakaway Leader
What's distinguished this season thus far is how tightly packed all the teams are this season, from #1 and on down. Although OU has been a strong and consistent force, and is currently ranked #1, they have not seemed the invincible leader that we've seen dominate the rankings in some past seasons. In fact, they opened the season with a loss. Since then, however, they've been a consistent force. Not far behind is Florida, with Alabama and LSU rising quickly to close the gap. We're also not seeing an overwhelming display of elite-level execution and difficulty from the top four -- they each have had their own issues (on different events and in different meets) and it will come down to who is peaking and performing at Nationals. For example, Florida and OU are both not competing as many advanced tumbling skills as some other squads nor are they necessarily attempting a larger number of more difficult vaults than the rest of the field. LSU and Bama have both had problems with consistency. These four are also closely chased by a large pack of teams --- doing similar or more difficulty with similar or even better levels of execution and artistry. Further clouding the issue is the scoring variation we've seen, even between events in a single meet.
Parity Has Arrived
From Team #1 to Rank #50+, we seen a narrowing in the skill gap between the top teams and the lower ranked teams. For the most part, many of the teams in the Top 36 are doing similar routines with similar skills and combinations. There are some standout routines, of course, but there are more similarities than there are differences, in terms of difficulty. So, it then comes down to execution and how strictly (and consistently) the judging panels are evaluating the finer points of the code. Despite the emphasis on big releases on UB and D/E skills on FX, almost every team has adapted. On UB and FX, changes were made to the "up to the level" flat 0.1 deduction to add more elements of risk. On UB, we're seeing more single bar releases and teams are getting more consistent with them. On FX, we're seeing teams with weaker tumbling use Rudis and dance skills as their second "D"s. Both of these Code changes were intended to increase separation of the field, but the talent pool has simply responded to the challenge. In addition, consistency has grown for all the teams and many teams are now able to complete meets without a counting fall, and complete entire beam rotations without obvious wobbles. Thus it is coming down to finer points in the code, like incomplete split positions and poor body position, lack of amplitude and pirouettes not completed in vertical. Just 0.1 per gymnast may not seem like a lot of scoring generosity, but over the course of a meet it can inflate a team's score by 2 full points. Thus, a 196 team one night can turn into a 194 team the next night, all with the exact same routines. That same 2.0 points is the difference in the RQS of the #12 team and the #45 team.
In past seasons, a lower ranked team could defeat a higher ranked team if the latter had several counting falls and the lower ranked team was hosting (unfortunately, and sadly, true). Usually, this happened only when the teams were separated by 10 to 15 spots in the Rankings. This season, we've seen a number of "upsets" where teams of a much lower rank (20 spots or more) have defeated the higher ranked team, and with one or no falls separating the teams! For example, then #38 NC State defeated then #14 Nebraska, then #23 SUU defeated then #3 Michigan, and then #36 Washington defeated then #12 Stanford and then #15 Missouri. Such parity between teams ranked 20 to 24 spots apart was unheard of five years ago, even with "B" lineups competing. The increased parity in skills and the wide variation in scoring strictness are the likely cause. In particular, there is a phenomenon we call the "soft bottom". This is when scoring gets progressively easier the worse the overall deductions are taken. So while many panels are reluctant to award 9.9+ scores, they also rarely hand out 9.5 to 9.6 scores when no major or medium sized mistake is made.
What Vault Change?
The much discussed rule change on VT, the lowering of the start value of the Layout Yurchenko Full, has had only a limited impact. There are three factors behind this: 1) the committee goofed and didn't downgrade the Yurchenko 1/2 to Front Layout (aka Yurchenko Arabian or Hristakieva), 2) many teams have not had enough time to train other vaults and 3) the risk/reward of 0.05 wasn't enough to encourage harder vaults. The judges have seemingly taken "3" into their own hands and still evaluate the Yurchenko 1 1/2 and doubles more leniently than the Yurchenko Layout Fulls. However, some panels (and commentators) are not really distinguishing the Layout Yurchenko Half from the Yurchenko Half to Front Layout. When a gymnast is still looking behind her just before her feet hit the ground, that's not a proper 1/2 to front layout. (Ideally, per the NCAA Vault Comparisons, a gymnast complete a "1/2 twist off table prior to vertical following by FRONT layout". The deduction for a late turn is supposed to be up to 0.5. Of course, the vault would just be downgraded to the 9.95SV Yurachenko Layout Half). What the change has done is shaved a tenth or two off of most team's vault totals. It's also narrowed the gap between strong vaulting teams and weaker vaulting teams. The big beneficiaries? The gymnasts doing proper Yurchenko Arabians or very clean 9.9 start value vaults (e.g., handspring front pike). Both of the latter effectively saw themselves gain 0.05 over much of their competition.
Race for the Top 18
There is a tight race for the Top 18 teams, which will be seeded to the various Regional sites: Ann Arbor (Michigan), Athens (UGA), Iowa City (Iowa), Minneapolis (Minnesota), Salt Lake City (Utah), Tuscaloosa (Bama). It's quite likely that at least four of these sites will include a Top 18 seed -- the sixth, Iowa, is 18th by a narrow margin (as of 3/7/16). Because a host team enjoys the comforts of home, the support of a home crowd, and a travel-free week, they naturally have a tendency to compete better than teams that have to travel to a strange gym and compete on strange equipment. Four of these seeds are currently ranked #1 in their Region, which will make them favorites to advance. The fifth, UGA, will enjoy the support of a large home crowd, which hopefully will help them address their inconsistency issues. The sixth, Iowa, is on the bubble at #18. The seedings are very much to be determined over the next two weekends; currently several hosts are currently tied together as part of the "trios" of Top 18 rankings used to seed teams (i.e., 1-12-13; 2-11-14; 3-10-15; 4-9-16; 5-8-17; 6-7-18). Thus, teams could be scattered across the country as the committee attempts to resolve these conflicts. Because of the parity mentioned earlier, there are a number of teams in reach of a Top 12 spot -- perhaps even as little as a single counting fall may separate the Top 25 or so teams, depending on the teams and their performances, but also on the host location and the leniency/strictness of the judging panel on each event.
Race for the Top 36
Just qualifying for Regionals is a big accomplishments. Being invited to the "party" is just the first step in making it to the "big dance" of Nationals. Right now, there is an intense battle for the Top 36 teams. Iowa State, a former Nationals qualifier, is currently on the bubble. Just 0.155 points separates #34 MSU to #39 Maryland, and many more have a shot to rise into the Top 36 or fall out of contention over the next two weekends. We'll have more on this next week as the picture becomes more clear. Interestingly, there could be as many as six teams in the Top 18 from the West Region, with no other qualifiers from the Region. This means several teams from Ranks 19 to 36 will be assigned to the Salt Lake Regional from other Regions.