Canadian national champion. Olympian. 2021 Big 10 Coach of the Year. Iowa’s head coach Larissa Libby has many talents, but by her own admission, math is not one of them.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a number person—they scare me!” Libby said with a laugh. “It takes a lot for me to break those things down. That being said, I don’t think that there was anybody in the country that didn’t think that there were errors in the bracket.”
The 2021 NCAA gymnastics championship bracket was controversial to say the least, with no clear rhyme, reason or consistency to the selections, leaving teams, coaches and fans alike frustrated and confused.
Like most who are familiar with bracketology, Libby and her staff had been certain that the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes were destined for the Morgantown regional. In actuality, their fate lay in Tuscaloosa, facing off against 20th-ranked Iowa State, 10th-ranked Arkansas and seventh-ranked Alabama.
“We were silent [after the announcement] because we honestly believed that the bracket was flawed. We thought that it was a mistake,” Libby said. “Four top 20 teams in one session? It’s very…unusual.”
Unusual indeed. While there are numerous methodologies utilized to create brackets, the generally accepted convention is that teams (or “seeds”) are planted equitably throughout a tournament to ensure the best teams will not meet until later in the competition. At the very least, it is expected that the placements and seeding will be consistent within the bracket. This was emphatically not the case in this year’s NCAA gymnastics bracket (as evidenced by the undeniably weaker field assigned to Morgantown).
After confirming that the bracket was indeed correct, Libby and the team steeled themselves to face the challenge awaiting in Alabama.
“Yes, [we knew] it’s going to be a hard bracket, but I want them to compete with the best and see what a big time championship looks like,” Libby said. “But who we were with was absolutely insane.”
Further complicating the issue was the unexpected departure of 15th-ranked Auburn, who’d been set to face Oklahoma, Missouri and the winner of the play-in round in session two.
“Why couldn’t they have moved one of us there? Every coach I spoke to thought that would be the right thing to do,” Libby said. “The bracket integrity is already designed to protect higher ranked teams, so why wouldn’t you want to do that when it’s clear that it’s overloaded in one session?”
The NCAA’s contingency for teams forfeiting a postseason berth due to COVID-19 stated that, “once the bracket is finalized and released, teams will not be reseeded, nor will the bracket change,” and that, “replacement teams will only be introduced to the championship within 48 hours after the announcement of the field, and at no time thereafter.”
Libby counters that what’s good for basketball isn’t necessarily good for gymnastics. “I understand that [for other sports], but our sport is very different. Our selection show comes a week and a half prior to us going to regionals, not 48 hours. There’s a difference.”
Iowa wasn’t the only team negatively impacted by the selection committee’s whims: Numerous teams’ geographic locations were completely disregarded, individual qualifiers were unequally distributed throughout the competitions and most egregiously, 26th ranked N.C. State was relegated to the play-in round in Athens while 29th ranked Kent State advanced straight to the second round in Morgantown.
“I did a double take,” N.C. State head coach Kim Landrus said. “It was not the news that we were expecting when we were watching the selection show.”
“I’ve known Kim for a long time,” Libby said. “When I saw that and whose team it was, I just said, ‘Oh man, they’re in for some trouble… She’s going all the way just to prove a point!’”
Libby’s prediction was spot on: After beating Western Michigan handily in the play-in, the Wolfpack upset both Central Michigan and Illinois to advance to the regional final, the team’s third competition in as many days, where it held its own against championship contenders Florida, Minnesota and Denver.
And for most of the so-called “Session of Death,” it seemed as though Iowa might also have one final upset up its sleeve. The Hawkeyes turned in an outstanding performance en route to a season-high 197.050, the second highest score in program history.
Libby admitted feeling “absolutely gutted” after the final results were announced and the Hawkeyes missed out on the Sweet Sixteen by less than two tenths. “It’s not like we competed poorly at all. If you would have called me and said, ‘You’re going to score a 197 at regionals. Will you take that?’ I would have said, ‘Yep, absolutely!’”
Libby is clear that her frustration lies with the process itself, not the judges or competitors.
“I know that college gymnastics around the country is excellent, but I never would have thought a 197 wouldn’t go through. We made the least amount of mistakes in our session. And then we lost every single [individual] tie breaker—just salt in the wound,” Libby said.
The tie break procedure for individual qualifiers is the most baffling and egregious offense in Libby’s eyes. Iowa senior Clair Kaji (bars) and sophomore JerQuavia Henderson (floor) were impacted along with literally dozens of other gymnasts from numerous teams and conferences. Iowa’s regular season first-team All-American Lauren Guerin (floor) wasn’t even in contention to advance.
“What is the point of having an NQS? What is the point of being ranked in the top 10?” asked Libby. “I feel bad for the [regionals judges] because how do you separate all those amazing routines? That’s so tough… But you’re not even looking at them and saying they didn’t do their job, you’re looking at them saying that the formula that we’ve implemented didn’t match up in their favor.”
The policy is all the more demoralizing for its seeming inconsistency, as gymnasts are ultimately allowed to share national titles. In fact, there were multiple ties at this weekend’s championships.
Libby believes the first step toward an equitable postseason is a simple one—transparency. “I know that we can’t magically fix everything, but a level of transparency in our sport in terms of decision making would go a long way towards putting people’s minds at rest and curbing some of the fighting and the thoughts of, ‘Is it fair?’ You just want to believe that you have a shot.”
While the current disappointment is still fresh, Libby is proud of Iowa gymnastics’ accomplishments this season, both on and off the floor. “This team touched greatness this season, but they’re also leaving an incredible legacy behind with all of their social justice work.”
She is inspired by that legacy and hopes that her voice will be just one of many calling for change and accountability in future postseasons.
“With everything that’s gone on this year, my kids have been empowered to use their voices to speak,” Libby said. “Now it’s my job to demonstrate that if you want to affect change, you have to speak up. You have to be willing to take the criticism and the consequences.”
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Article by Claire Billman
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