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2018 NCAA Gym Nationals Preview

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Can LSU pull off the upset?

NCAA Gymnastics: Women's Gymnastics Championships
Let’s do this
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

This is it. The last Super Six ever.

Next year, the NCAA changes the format of the postseason, and the finals will be a four-team event. But for one last time, we get the full frenetic two days of Nationals, whittling a field of twelve down to six, and then crowning a champ the next day.

LSU enters the final weekend as the nation’s second ranked team with an RQS of 197.890. The Tigers are the single best chance to prevent an Oklahoma repeat title. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Oklahoma is on a different planet than everyone else right now.

Oklahoma’s RWS is a 198.120, 0.230 ahead of the Tigers. The Sooners qualifying score is above a 198, which is frankly ridiculous. LSU’s high score of the season is a 198.175, barely ahead of Oklahoma’s RQS. Oklahoma has reached the heights of 198.375. They are an overwhelming favorite.

Only seven schools have an RQS above 197 (Oklahoma, LSU, UCLA, Utah, Florida, Bama, and Michigan), which would compose our field of genuine contenders, but Michigan didn’t even qualify for Nationals, whittling our field to six. Even that is a bit generous. Only two teams are even within 0.500 of Oklahoma’s RQS: LSU and UCLA. The field of truly legitimate contenders is probably limited to those three, barring something unforeseen.

For those of you who do not remember the format, Nationals works like this: the teams are divided into two Semifinals of six teams, and the top three teams from each group will move on to the Super Six. On Saturday, those top six teams will compete and the winner will be crowned national champions. The individual titles will be decided on Friday, based upon scores in the semifinals (there will also be individuals competing from teams that did not qualify for Nationals).

LSU needs to finish top three in Semifinal I, starting at high noon in St. Louis. Here is the field:

Semifinal I

Team RQS High Vault Bars Beam Floor
Team RQS High Vault Bars Beam Floor
LSU 197.89 198.175 49.4 49.58 49.475 49.54
UCLA 197.84 198.275 49.435 49.425 49.57 49.575
Bama 197.165 197.525 49.285 49.415 49.36 49.315
Arkansas 196.82 197.3 49.25 49.34 49.285 49.265
Nebraska 196.815 197.175 49.055 49.25 49.15 49.32
Georgia 196.515 197.525 49.125 49.215 49.21 49.29

LSU has beaten all these teams in the regular season save UCLA. LSU only needs to finish top three, and these are teams that the Tigers absolutely know they can beat. There’s a troika of SEC teams here, and LSU just completed its second consecutive sweep of the SEC regular season coupled with a win at the SEC Championships. Then there’s Nebraska, who had the best meet of their entire season at Regionals, and it still wasn’t enough to beat LSU.

LSU has a decisive edge over most of this field. They not only can and should beat these teams, they have beaten them all recently. LSU doesn’t need its best meet, though you want to be on your top form for consistency reasons. It’s hard to put up a dud on Friday and then a monster on Saturday.

So the real battle on Friday for LSU is making a statement against UCLA. Neither team will likely need its top heroics to advance, but this is their first chance to face their biggest competition in upsetting Oklahoma for the title. Both teams want to show that they are the one true contender.

I don’t want to assume that LSU will advance to the Super Six, but failing to advance would be a shock, and let’s face it, a total failure. LSU isn’t just happy to be here. The goal on Friday is to put this one away early and then work out the final kinks for Saturday.

Given the quality of Oklahoma, I believe it will take a score of 198.000, or something very close to it, to win a national title this year. No one is going to back into a title, as it would require three teams which average near 198.000 to all have a terrible meet, and that’s simply not going to happen.

Instead of previewing the rotations on Friday, let’s look ahead at the six main contenders on each rotation. Now, it’s likely one or two of these teams does not make the Super Six. But if someone sneaks into the Super Six from outside this group, they probably won’t win the title. Let’s just look at the likely contenders.

Vault

Team Rank RQS Average High
Team Rank RQS Average High
Oklahoma 1 49.535 49.485 49.65
LSU 5 49.4 49.337 49.525
UCLA 4 49.435 49.285 49.625
Utah 3 49.44 49.38 49.625
Florida 2 49.445 49.345 49.525
Bama 6 49.285 49.129 49.3

Remember when the vault was our strongest rotation? Not so much this year, as LSU has struggled deeply with consistency. The goal here is to simply not get blown off of the leaderboard. Almost every team in the possible field has reach greater scores, and all of them have a higher RQS. LSU needs to put up a good score here, of course, but this is the classic rotation where LSU cannot win a title, they can only lose it. Oklahoma also has the potential to blow away the field here, so not only does LSU need a good rotation, the Tigers could use a little bit of help and have the Sooners falter a tad. This is where Oklahoma has its biggest advantage over LSU.

Bars

Team Rank RQS Average High
Team Rank RQS Average High
Oklahoma 2 49.545 49.525 49.725
LSU 1 49.58 49.467 49.75
UCLA 4 49.425 49.346 49.625
Utah 9 49.32 49.307 49.45
Florida 3 49.47 49.361 49.575
Bama 5 49.415 49.3 49.55

This is where LSU needs to be great. LSU probably cannot win the national title unless they absolutely stick the uneven bars. It’s a discipline where LSU holds a slight edge this season over Oklahoma, but also a huge edge over the rest of the field. The Tigers can possibly put themselves out of reach of UCLA, their biggest rival for the stalking horse position. Also, look at how much trouble Utah is in on the uneven bars. Utah is the #4 team in the country, but the Utes are at a massive disadvantage on the uneven bars. Their goal is to avoid disaster while it is LSU’s goal to create that disaster. You need to be at your best on your best events. Press the advantage where you have it.

Beam

Team Rank RQS Average High
Team Rank RQS Average High
Oklahoma 1 49.605 49.396 49.775
LSU 3 49.475 49.354 49.725
UCLA 2 49.57 49.452 49.725
Utah 8 49.32 49.223 49.525
Florida 4 49.44 49.291 49.675
Bama 6 49.36 49.169 49.45

Win the beam, win the meet. It might be DD Breaux’s mantra, but it is the Sooners who embody it. Maggie Nichols’ RQS on the beam is an astonishing 9.980. Sure, they have four gymnasts above a 9.90, but to have someone who has a qualifying score that is almost a perfect 10? That is mind blowing. It is no accident that the top three contenders are top three in the beam, and for all of my talking about the other rotations, it really does come down to this one. LSU, UCLA, and Oklahoma all have spectacular beam rotations and any of the three of them could put up the high score. Usually, we’re used to teams simply clinging for dear life on the beam, but the top contenders see your nerves and instead attack the beam. This is where they try to pile on the points. LSU doesn’t necessarily need to win the beam (though it would certainly go a long way), but LSU does need to keep pace with whoever does. On Saturday, a 49.500 on the beam might be considered a good not great score. That’s how important this rotation is.

Floor

Team Rank RQS Average High
Team Rank RQS Average High
Oklahoma 3 49.53 49.444 49.65
LSU 2 49.54 49.429 49.7
UCLA 1 49.575 49.471 49.775
Utah 4 49.52 49.459 49.775
Florida 5 49.42 49.173 49.625
Bama 11 49.315 49.238 49.575

Floor exercise is the crowd pleaser, but it is also another rotation where LSU has a slight edge over Oklahoma. The problem is that edge is almost imperceptible, which makes it not much of an edge. It is interesting to see the team’s different styles come through on the floor. LSU has recently been about power and athleticism, trying to jump their way out of the gym and into first place. Oklahoma is about grace and precision, and they seem to delight in doing slightly less difficult routines, but do them absolutely perfectly. LSU tends to go for the gusto, living on the knife’s edge. The floor is the most fun, but I don’t think it will have a huge impact on the final podium, save maybe to eliminate Bama from it. The teams are all too close together, and frankly, everyone is likely to put up a big score save one unpredictable bad night from someone.

The Tigers come to St. Louis as favorites for the podium, but underdogs to win the whole thing. Oklahoma is the clear favorite, but they are not unbeatable. Their biggest strength is their consistency. The Sooners rarely make mistakes. They do not leave the door open for you, you have to find a small crack and kick it in. The Sooners simply will not beat themselves.

It’s up to LSU to do that for them. Let’s send out the Super Six era in style, and win the last title of this era. The path isn’t easy, but it is there. Geaux Tigers. Let’s win this thing.

LSU’s Semifinal Group 1 has the morning session, airing at Noon on ESPN 2 this Friday, followed by Semifinal Group 2 at 6pm on ESPNU. The Super Six Finals air at 6pm on Saturday on ESPNU. If you’re interested, along with the televised whip-around coverage, cameras at each individual apparatus will stream live on ESPN3.