The Problematic "Finals" at the NCAAs
Judging inconsistency at the NCAA continued to frustrate many fans. Scores generally rose throughouth the competition and judging became more lax with each and every round. While the first round or two saw some nicely rigorous scoring, the lid on scores quickly came off. Routines from top gymnasts with clear execution errors outscored earlier routines with comparable or higher levels of difficulty, and without obvious execution errors. Although the right squads advanced to the final, and the team and AA winner was undisputed, the awarding of event champions was problematic. There was a six-way tie for the UB champion, a fact mocked endlessly on Social Media. While some people may call for the reinstatement of event finals, the wear and tear on the athletes is an obvious and valid concern.
The Men's solutions is to use the first day as a qualifier, and advance the top AAers and individuals not on a Super Six team to the final session. However, doing this on the Women's side would make for a very lengthy final -- one that is already too long for TV. A true Final Four plus top individuals could create a spectacular final, but appears unlikely.
Certain teams will face some big challenges in filling spots due to graduation. Here's a quick summary of the Top 12 from this past season (number of routines from their last competition in parentheses).
1. Oklahoma (7): Chayse Capps, Reagan Hemry, Charity Jones, Kara Lovan, Nicole Turner, McKenzie Wofford
2. LSU (8): Sydney Ewing, Ashleigh Gnat, Shae Zamardi
3. Florida (0): Claire Boyce, Lacy Dagen
4. UCLA (5 to 7): Angi Cipra, Mikaela Gerber, Peng-Peng Lee (petitioning for a 6th year), Hallie Mossett
5. Utah (4): Baely Rowe
6. Alabama (10): Katie Bailey, Amanda Jetter, Keely McNeer, Mary Lillian Sanders, Aja Sims, Mackenzie Valentin
7. Nebraska (7): Jennie Laeng, Ashley Lambert
8. Washington (6): Kaitlyn Duranczyk, Janae Janik, Alexandra Yacalis
9. Denver (6): Rachel Fielitz, Leah Lomonte, Julia Ross
10. Michigan (7): Nicole Artz, Talia Chiarelli
11. Oregon State (15): Erika Aufiero, Silvia Colussi-Pelaez, Madeline Gardiner, Megan Jimenez, Kaytianna McMillan, Taylor Ricci
12. Georgia (10): Ashlyn Broussard, Morgan Reynolds, Beth Roberts, Rachel Schick. Lauren Johnson is set to return for a fifth year.
Once rosters finalize with early starts, transfers and late signings, we'll post a summary of who is incoming. Stay tuned also for our recap of JO Nationals.
Coaching Musical Chairs
Every post-season we see a shuffling in the coaching positions as Coaches retire, resign or are let go. This year is no exception.
It appears there are head coaching positions available at UGA, PSU, MSU, Illinois, Pitt and NC State. Often, these positions are filled from the ranks of Head Coaches from lower ranked programs, from top club programs, or leading assistant and Associate Head Coaches. We're likely to see this shuffle continue through the summer.
There are a number of assistant positions open as well, including Rutgers (2), Towson, SPU, and Washington (Caleb Philips). This list could expand as Head Coaching positions get filled and new hires are announced.
Early starts for signees are starting to become more commonplace. Gymnasts are being asked to graduate early, as roster spots open up unexpectedly. While this clearly has a benefit for the teams, the impact on the student-athlete is unclear. While some athletes are able to handle college life and academics at an early age, for others it can be more challenging. This is a trend to watch.
While we have a long way to go until next season, some early favorites for 2018 are emerging. While OU has some losses to fill, most observers expect the Sooners to reload and contend again. However, the early team to watch for 2018 is Florida. With no starting routines lost to graduation and elites like Alyssa Baumann, Vanasia Bradley, Jazymin Foberg, and Megan Skaggs starting next season, a much deeper Gator squad is an early threat for the title.
Wishes for the Upcoming Code
The Women's NCAA Gymnastics Modifications are due for another update. The last set of updates introduced a number of changes that produced some positive impacts (vault start values) but certain changes also negatively impacted events like UB.
Many commentators and fans have proposed a variety of solutions for code updates, including our article on this site one year ago. However, as we've mentioned several times in the past, the easiest solution of all is for the NCAA to simply adopt the USA Gymnastics Level 10 Code of Points in its entirety. It's well known by the judges, the coaches and the athletes. There are very few Level 9s successfully making the lineups of Division I and II programs -- the few that do are specialists with L10 difficulty and execution.
In all cases, only minor tweaks are needed. A complete overall is not warranted.
The changes on Vault have produced the desired effect. While some might argue more separation is needed, stricter judging will need to come with any change.
It's UB where the biggest problems lie in the code. The last several years of Code Modifications have gradually weakened the requirements and reduced the variety in routine composition. This last set of changes placed more emphasis on major releases and simplified the "up to the level" deduction on routine difficulty. While more gymnasts are throwing a major release (or two major D releases), the routines have become shorter, more "stock", and less interesting. While the prior codes encouraged combinations and a bit more variety, the new code allows routines with three or four major elements to meet all the requirements.
By removing tools by which the judging panels can readily separate the routines, we're forcing repetition into routine construction and forcing the judges to evaluate increasingly esoteric elements of execution. Coaches are capitalizing on small variations of about three "core routines" that meet all the requirements with the fewest chance of deduction.
Gymnasts at the top 36 teams have now largely mastered hitting their handstands and sticking their dismounts. Of course, there are still other deductions that can be taken in these routines. However, the judging panels are now left to evaluating substantially similar routines based on small differences in things like body position, swing quality, and extension of the hips during kips. The end result is less exciting and less easy to understand for regular fans. It places undue emphasis on sticking, also potentially raising the risk of major injury during training.
While the JO Code provides many tools, perhaps a subset of these requirements can be incorporated into the NCAA Modifications. We previously suggested a 0.05 deduction for the lack of a major release and resetting the "up to the level" deduction to a range of 0.2. In this "sliding rule" (implemented in past JO and NCAA codes), a routine with two Ds receives no deduction while a routine with the minimum C-B releases receives 0.2 in deductions. To encourage variety, the NCAA could add a 0.1 deduction for a lack of a bonus combination with one element from certain groups of skills (Groups 5, 6 and 7 -- skills like front elgrip giants, stalders, toe-ons, and free hips).
BB has been less problematic, but routines are increasingly getting shorter. A few select skill and combination devaluations should take care of most of these issues. A flat 0.1 deduction for missing a bounding (minimum C acro) series is an easy fix. The bonus for front to back acro combinations should also be reduced by 0.1 and should not satisfy the "up to the level" requirement without a second D. Currently, a front aerial to back handspring earns 0.2 tenths in Combination Bonus and 0.1 tenth for the D. It means a good portion of a gymnast's bonus and requirements can be satisfied with two skills. The lack of B+ value skills outside the bonus difficulty skills and the dismount should invoke distribution deductions of up to 0.1.
Floor is facing a similar problem, with routines being reduced down to a few select skills and jumps. However, the bigger problem is the lack of separation in routines. A sliding scale of 0.2 for "up to the level" in difficulty would give judges the tools to separate the routines. A similar approach has been used in the past in the NCAA ranks (and in the JO ranks). However, many feel the 0.2 spread is too harsh and overprioritizes tumbling. The current code provides for at least one D salto and a second D salto or acro skill to meet "up to the level". This is far too easy for the level of athlete in the NCAA today. The dance exception should be eliminated, and new 0.05 requirements for a double salto (somewhere in the routine) and a D-level back or E level front dismount should instituted.
The switch-side should also be devalued to a B, as too many judging panels are having difficulty in separating over-rotated and under-rotated leaps.
A few tweaks to the current NCAA Code Modifications could give judging panels objective measures to separate routines, rather than resorting to subjective deductions. They would also serve to encourage variety in routine construction.