Tuesday, 20 March 2018 21:23

Regular Season Rewind: Race to Regionals

Written by
Iowa and Melissa Zurawski are on the Regional Bubble Iowa and Melissa Zurawski are on the Regional Bubble (c) 2017 Lloyd Smith, Used by Permission

It's Conference Championship weekend, and we're our final stretch in the Race to Regionals.  39 teams remain in contention for 36 spots in the post-season, but many of the spots are essentially locked.  Our biggest mystery will remain in the final Regional placements of the teams. 

Here are some impressions from this season:

 Regionals Locked for 39 -- But Only 36 Advance

The Top 39 teams are the only ones left with a shot at a spot at the NCAA Regionals.  To qualify, each team needed to compile a Regional Qualifying Score (RQS).  It's calculated by taking a team's top three away meet scores, then their other three highest scores, tossing out the high, and averaging the remaining five.  You can see the Regional locks at this LINK.  Teams 34 to 39 still battling for the final three spots in Regionals.

Each Regional is comprised of three teams from the Top 18 and three other teams selected based on geographical proximity (with other considerations).  The Regionals are hosted this year at Salt Lake City (Utah), Tuscaloosa (Bama), Raleigh (NC State), Columbus (Ohio State), University Park (PSU), and Minneapolis (Minnesota).  The Regional Seeds are comprised of trios of the teams ranked (after this weekend): 1-12.-13, 2-11-14, 3-10-15, etc.  If there is a Regional host school in one of the Trios, they will anchor that trio to that Regional site.  For now, that just includes Utah and Bama.  If there are more than one host in a trio, it will be broken up with an adjacent trio, with preference going to the higher ranked squad.   However, this season, this may not happen as only NC State has a very slight shot of hitting the Top 18, and the top 6 are nearly locked (only Michigan and Bama can swap spots).  The remaining Regional trios are assigned based on various considerations, including proximity to the highest ranked team.  

The Final Weekend

The big races this weekend are for places in the Top 12 and the Top 18.    There 7 teams battling for 3 undecided spots in the Top 18, and 7 teams battling for 4 undecided slots in the Top 12.  The final placement of these squads will really determine the strength of a Regional, and could impact a team's ability to advance.  Certain teams have been held back by injury, inconsistency and a lack of depth, but could put together a powerful "hit" meet at the right time.  A normally consistent team could suffer just a few problems and fail to advance.  Or very loose judging on an event can help even out differences in quality of performances, like this past weekend on uneven bars at the Big 5 meet at MSU. 

OU -- the 9.9 Machine

Oklahoma finished the regular season with a remarkable 198.12 RQS  - a per-routine average of over 9.9.  They've been led by superb performances from Maggie Nichols and Brenna Dowell, and breakout frosh Anastasia Webb.   OU has built their biggest event advantage on what used to be their weakest event, vault.  They will also rely on their trademark execution and consistency to stave off the challengers.  Their biggest question mark heading into the post-season is perhaps the health of senior AJ Jackson.  Her big scores on VT and FX will be key as we head into the Super Six.  They will have to remain consistent, as the rest of the field is closing the gap to challenge.

UCLA and LSU in the Chase

UCLA and LSU are closing the gap on the Sooners.  UCLA continues to use a rotating selection of lineups, but their superstars will be locked and dialed in for success in the post-season.  Their main question marks for the Bruins are with consistency and depth in the 5-6 slots, especially in pressure situations.  Vault was a concern early on, but they've now been settling into a more consistent lineup, with more "sticks".  LSU has been improving throughout the season, upgrading  their difficulty on VT and getting a strong surge from Sarah Finnegan and Kennadi Edney, along with strong performances from Myia Hambrick and Lexie Priessman (who has battled injury).  LSU has excelled on UB, so it's strange to see VT as their weakest event this season.   

Utah and Florida, Rising to the Finish

Utah and Florida are in the next chase pack, with super potential in both squads.  MyKayla Skinner of Utah is a threat for the AA title, and McKenna Merrell-Giles has been battling her in the AA in every meet.  Injuries have hurt the Utes depth, and so they'll look to put forward their best lineups in the post-season.  Injuries have also taken a toll on Florida, with a devastating injury to senior Kennedy Baker.  But with Alex McMurtry and Alicia Boren, both AA title threats, the Gators still have the potential to challenge for the title.  Their sophomores have also stepped up this season, but their frosh, while brilliant at times, have shown some of the adjustment problems that can plague a former top elite gymnast, when adjusting to NCAA competition.    Both teams have scored lower on the road, and have routines further down the depth chart that are sometimes subject to problems due to lack of experience or inherent deductions. 

The Rest of the Top 10

Bama has also had to cope with injuries and inexperience, but appears to be putting it together for the post-season.  Avoiding further injury and getting top performances from Kiana Winston, Nickie Guerrero and frosh Lexi Graber will be key.  The balance beam is their hinge event, with consistency sometimes being an issue.  Right behind them is Michigan, who is working past the loss of star Liv Karas, thanks to the performances of Brianna Brown, Lexi Funk, Emma McLean and Paige Zaziski.  With only eight gymnasts in the active lineup, they'll need to stay healthy in this final stretch and "hits" from their 5/6 performers will be key. 

Washington has gradually worked up the ranks as their gymnasts regained their health or gained experience.  Their trademark is consistency and perhaps depth like few other teams -- every gymnast has similar levels of difficulty and execution, from first up to last up, including the alternate.  Similarly, Kentucky has been very consistent throughout the season, and has posted some of their highest scores on the road.  They have a big star in Mollie Korth, capably backed up by Alex Hyland and Sidney Dukes.  In tenth currently is Cal, which is riding a late season surge, even as star Toni Ann Williams has battled an injury  Their big test will be at the Pac 12s, as they've yet to score over 195 when leaving a 90 mile radius of their home gym (albeit early in the season).  There is a large chase pack of teams looking for a spot in the Top 12, and only Bama, Michigan and UW have locked spots in the Top 12.     

Scoring, Scoring, Scoring

Nothing causes an NCAA fan more anxiety and nothing fuels a message group or forum with more posts than a discussion of scoring.  Lax scoring, tight scoring, "leo" bonuses, hometowning, and even a lack of favoritism are all complaints.  Rest assured, no judge is purposely "making up" new deductions.  There are plenty of deductions in the base Code of Points to be taken, and even in the strictest of meets, there are more to be taken.  The judges are, in general, trying their best and working within the confines of the Code. Fans can always be convinced that "their team" receives strict scoring, while the other team does not.  Sometimes that may be the case, but more often than not, we have trouble recognizing that our loyalties may influence our perceptions.  Individual panels in any meet, in any conference, in any state of the country can have stricter than normal judging or looser than normal judging.  Certain judges will be very strict, but they can only judge a team a limited number of times.  Many top judges travel extensively, and will appear in panels from coast to coast.  With the exception of remote locations, most teams face a diversity of judges each season. 

Standards and Objectivity

We have seen issues in scoring, from extra swings generously called swing halfs to vaults issued the wrong start value.  While we have not heard any reports of a missed fall (unbelievably usually there is one each season, somewhere, and usually caught by the 2nd judge), mistakes do happen.  However, if missed deductions become a pattern, it becomes an issue.  What's missing from the NCAA is a system of independent accountability, auditing and the use of technology to weed out bias.  Way in the past, the FIG experimented with data analysis systems to root out systemic bias.  With the quantity of meets across multiple seasons, and improved technology, such a system could have real value.  Random audits and expert video review that provide feedback on performance could also be implemented.  Independence is the key.  There is a basic principle that a system that is not measured or monitored does not improve.  The every act of observation and measurement tends to improve the result.  The NCAA and the judging community have made great strides in judging education and the establishment of norms and level setting.  It's now time to take it to the next level. 

The "Soft Bottom"

The "Soft Bottom" refers to the tendency in the NCAA for judging panels to get progressively more lenient with routines that have more than 0.2 in deductions.   It becomes increasingly rare to see a score awarded to a gymnast on a Top 36 team (without medium or major errors) below a 9.7.  As the deductions pile up, some judges become increasingly lenient.  Thus it's extremely rare to see a score below 9.5 without an actual fall.  Conversely, routines without obvious deductions that get near the 9.9 levels see an increasing level of fine scrutiny, unless they have exceptional difficulty.  For example, suddenly, issues like body position, dynamics, degree of split and rhythm become more important in a beam routine without the usual steps or wobbles.   It creates a sense of false parity when routines are separated by just 0.2 tenths when easily two times that amount could be justified.   

"Overlooked" Deductions

Certain skills and combinations are sometimes seemingly treated gently by the judges, but persist even with the best of gymnasts.  A combination of bad viewing angles and the difficulty to view details in real time complicates the judge's task.  Here are a few of our "pet peeves": 

  • The Sheep Jump on BB:  The head release, hip angle and foot height (at the head) are not commonly achieved as prescribed in the Code.... but rarely fully deducted.
  • The Switch Side on FX:  Often used in combination with a Popa (full twisting straddle jump), this leap is frequently "over turned" by about 1/4 turn (90 degrees), cheating the next leap out of a 1/4 turn and making it easier to get around.  Up to 0.2 can be taken here, but it is often missed completely in 9.975+ routines. 
  • The "Gogean" on FX:  The tour jete with extra full turn, or "Gogean", is sometimes used to fulfill the dance bonus criteria and/or for the "up to the level" difficulty requirement (both compositional deductions).  This is a skill that is only sometimes performed correctly by the top gymnasts in the world, including Simone Biles.  Usually, a gymnast ends up about 90 to 150 degrees short of the final turn, and completes the remainder on the ground. 
  • The Straight Jump on BB:  Too many straight jumps (rate an "A" and eligible for Connection Bonus) are done with poor amplitude.  These jumps are sometimes done with only two or so inches of clearance from the beam, but deductions for insufficient amplitude may not be taken. 
  • The Cat Leap on BB:  Similarly, Cat Leaps (and "hitch kicks") are performed with poor rhythm, with knees at below horizontal, and/or with only an awkward exchange of the feet from the beam (the legs are exchanged, like the "crane kick" in the original "Karate Kid" movie). 
  • Preflight Leg Separation on Vault:  Round-off entry or Yurchenko Vaults can sometimes suffer from a pre-flight leg separation.  This is easy to miss by fans and judges alike.  In contrast, a similar leg separation on a Tsuk-entry is much easier to see, and is usually deducted. 
  • The Bail to Handstand:  The degree of handstand in the bail to handstand (overshoot to handstand, from high to low) should be within 10 degrees of vertical.  But, it's supposed to be evaluated by the full body position at first contact to the low bar.  Instead, some gymnasts use a pike-open technique to rise into the handstand after their hands contact the bar, an approach that is seemingly not evenly deducted. 
  • The Staggered Landing:  Some gymnasts land with one foot in front of the other.  The code prescribes up to a 0.1 deduction. 

"Since 2004"

If you've noticed this phrase alot lately, it's because teams have been recording their highest team and individual marks since this time frame.  What is this landmark year?  It was the last year we say so many high RQS averages and so many records being broken,  It was also the last year before the code was reset to make these high scores more difficult, and judging was tightened up.  Post season, we'll include another write-up on Code changes we'd like to see in 2019. 



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