Mia Takekawa from the University of Illinois salutes after balance beam at the Seattle regional

Winners and Losers of the New(ish) Postseason Format

The most important meets of the 2022 season have just wrapped up. Champions were crowned, history was made and trophies were hoisted. It is a tremendously exciting time, and it has arguably become more exciting since the 2019 season. The end of the Super Six brought about a new postseason format, and with it, some positive and negative changes. Who have been the winners in the three championships since? And who has been hurt the most?

Before we get started, a short review of some key format changes. For an in-depth look at how this year’s team and individual champions were determined, check out our article about the postseason format on NCAA.com. The most obvious change is going from the rule of six to the rule of four. The previous format divided the top 36 teams into six regionals, where 12 teams advanced to nationals and the title was given to the winner of a six-team final. Today there are still 36 teams, but there are only four regionals and they have two additional rounds. The play-in cuts the field from 36 to 32, and from there, two teams advance from each four-team session until there are only four teams remaining in the national final.

For individuals, the qualification process is also different. Previously, there were 24 spots for all-around competitors, four at each regional. To advance to nationals, an all-arounder had to place in the top two at their regional, disregarding the scores of advancing teams. Today, there are only four all-around spots, one per regional. The top competitor not on an advancing team, based on the scores from the round of 32, moves on. Individual event specialists follow a similar format. Each regional has one specialists per event, a total of 16. The gymnast with the highest score on each event during the round of 32, not on an advancing team and using a tie-break procedure, qualifies for nationals. Previously, individual event specialists had to win an event outright to advance to nationals, with no guaranteed event spots. If the winner of the event was on an advancing team, no individual specialist would qualify.

Phew, that was a lot of numbers with a lot of pros and cons. Luckily I’m here to help analyze them and to explore some hypothetical solutions that could make the postseason better for everyone. I believe that overall the four-team format is significantly better than the six-team format: We get more gymnastics, competitions without byes move faster and feel more exciting, and the individual qualification process is a bit more streamlined. Every system can still be improved, but we are on the right track. That being said, let’s get started!

WINNER: Teams Nos. 17-36

In the previous regionals format, 24 teams saw their seasons end on the same day of competition. A strong performance led to a boost in the final rankings but not to advancing further into the postseason. Now, the round of 16 adds another opportunity for greatness and a bit of prestige to the mix. What would have been a third- or fourth-place performance in a six-team meet could very likely mean qualifying for another day of competition. For a team ranked outside of the top 16, the prospect is exciting. Take this year’s Cinderellas, No. 18 Arkansas, No. 22 Iowa and No. 29 Stanford. Jumping into the top 16 in the final rankings is a great achievement all three could have done even in a six-team format, but the emotion of upsetting one of the higher-ranked teams to advance to a second day of competition cannot be matched. There is also something to be said for teams No. 33-36, who would not have made it to regionals at all if the NCAA had focused purely on four-team meets. Perhaps this is all counterbalanced by the disappointment felt by teams No. 9-12, who no longer advance to nationals, but as we grow more used to the bracket system, we will likely put a higher value on the regional final. Making it there should be viewed as a remarkable accomplishment, especially for a team that wasn’t seeded to do so.

LOSER: Also Teams No. 17-36

We could call this one “loser: the concept of geography.” As with the previous regionals format, the NCAA gives the top teams a national seed and distributes them based on ranking, but sends the lower-ranked teams to regionals based on location. There is no clear process to how location is determined, and with two fewer regional sites, the missteps have become more pronounced. This year, Illinois was almost evenly spaced between the Norman, Auburn and Raleigh regionals but was sent to Seattle. Boise State, one of the closest teams to Seattle, was sent to Norman. The randomness of geographical placement would stop at weird if all of the regional sessions ended up with the same level of competition, but that has not been the case. Take the 2021 Tuscaloosa regional, which, other than the play-in meet, did not have a team ranked outside of the top 24. The afternoon session featured No. 19 Iowa and No. 20 Iowa State as the bottom two teams, a lopsided field that was a disservice to both the Hawkeyes and the Cyclones. It is not difficult to imagine a regional semifinal session with teams No. 17 and No. 18, especially since some areas of the country have more good teams than can fit in one regional.

The geography argument also hurts the play-in teams. Iowa State got the short end of the stick again in 2022, when it had to compete in a play-in meet despite being ranked No. 28. The team that avoided the play-in was No. 30 N.C. State, which had to compete in one the year before. It may seem like a few ranking spots are inconsequential, but for the play-in teams, arbitrary assignments can be a big deal. The play-in meets are unfortunately treated like an afterthought by the NCAA, which scheduled this year’s on a Wednesday afternoon. Moreover, winning the play-in means competing two days in a row, and another win means competing three times in four days. If a team was ranked highly enough to avoid a play-in, an extra competition is an unnecessary disadvantage. We have already seen two occasions when a play-in team has made it to the regional final: N.C. State in 2021 and Stanford in 2022. N.C. State should have been able to avoid its play-in meet altogether, leaving it fresher for the regional final with a greater chance to upset once again.

WINNER: Regional Hosts

This one is pretty simple: Spreading regionals over three days of competition offers the host school more opportunities to compete in front of its home crowd. A team that makes it to the regional final is guaranteed two home meets as opposed to the one it would have had under the six-team format, and the possibility is there for a hosting play-in team to have three. We all know that a supportive crowd can boost performances and confidence, and in a sport with margins as small as gymnastics, it has a huge impact. This year, No. 25 Washington put up its second-highest score of the season to nearly advance in the Seattle regional semifinal. No. 7 Auburn fended off No. 10 Kentucky in its regional to advance to nationals for the first time since 2016, despite the Wildcats beating the Tigers in the semifinal. If either competition had been at a different school, the results could have been different.

LOSER: Banged-up Teams

Gymnastics fans love having more competitions to watch, but adding an additional two rounds to the NCAA tournament is no small feat. Now, it doesn’t take just one great performance to make it to nationals—it takes two or even three. If a team is facing any lingering injuries, soreness or illnesses, it has some difficult choices to make. Should it rest athletes during the pressure-packed early competitions and risk failing to advance? Or should it risk losing an athlete for the rest of the season by putting forward its best lineups? There is a day off in between the rounds of 32 and 16, but previously, there was a single competition and then about a week and a half to recover before nationals. Only time will tell whether adding competitions will have significant impacts to the health and safety of athletes exhausted after a long regular season.

WINNER: Individual Event Specialists

What really makes specialists winners is the guarantee that someone will advance to nationals on each event outside of the advancing teams. Through 2018, any gymnast not moving on with a top 12 team had to win their event, counting the scores of the teams that advanced. Naturally the advancing teams produced great event scores, which made it difficult for individuals. If a gymnast from the No. 1 team got a perfect 10, someone with a 9.975 was left in the dust.

Today, individuals do not have to worry about competing with the teams that advance. One spot per event is guaranteed to move on, even if someone from an advancing team or the all around qualifier had a higher score on every event. A specialist can rest assured a spot on their event won’t simply vanish based on the performances of the best teams. However, the competition for each spot is as tough as ever. The new system offers no ties, meaning even if multiple gymnasts not on advancing teams score a perfect 10, only one will move on to nationals. The change is likely to result in more individual national champions competing without their teams, and this year it became clear that the event spots were not only going out to teams near the top eight. Every regional had at least one gymnast advancing on an individual event whose team did not make the top 16. The Norman regional in particular produced three, and two of them, Lindenwood’s Gayla Griswold and Illinois State’s Jaye Mack, qualified to regionals as individuals.

LOSER: Individual All-Arounders

This one is pretty much because there are fewer all-arounders, especially at nationals. Cutting the number of individual all-around qualifiers from 24 to 12 for regionals is one thing, but it’s a bit odd that only a single all-arounder qualifies from each regional as opposed to two in the previous format. It seems like an unnecessary measure—one that hurts some tremendously talented gymnasts. The second-place all-arounder to a gymnast like Oregon State’s Jade Carey, the easy qualifier out of the 2022 Seattle regional, still deserves to be at nationals competing on all four events. That spot would have gone to either Mia Takekawa of Illinois or Washington’s Skylar Killough-Wilhelm, both of whom could have made an impact on the all-around standings. Takekawa in particular is spectacular on balance beam, but did not compete it at nationals because she advanced as a bars specialist. Her advancing as an all-arounder would not only make the race for the beam title more exciting, but open up the individual beam spot to another gymnast from the Seattle regional. Similar stories can be found across the country.

Now that I have talked about some of the biggest issues facing the four-team NCAA postseason format, I want to offer some thoughts on how we might improve them. Would these fix everything? Of course not, but they’re fun to think about.

SOLUTION: Seed Every Team

If the NCAA is going to send teams all over the place, regardless of geographic location, why not just give everyone a national seed? It will not be perfectly equitable, as we know how accurate rankings can be, but it will at least have a greater semblance of fairness. Sending all 36 teams to regionals based on their seeds would ensure that teams ranked No. 19 and No. 20 won’t have to face each other in the first round again simply because they are in the same state. It would also prevent a more highly ranked team from sneaking into the play-in meets. If a team is No. 29-36, they are in the play-in. No ifs, ands or buts.

Assuming that the seeds would be distributed as the top 16 currently are, they would follow a serpentine model that gives preference to the highest-ranked teams in a series of tiers. The first tier is teams No. 1-8, the second is teams No. 9-16 and so on. Oklahoma, the top team in the first tier, was paired with Arizona State, the bottom team in the second tier. California, the top team in the second tier, was paired with Minnesota, the bottom team in the first tier it theoretically had the greatest chance of beating. This system is most familiar in the NCAA basketball tournament, which focuses on giving the top teams the best path to the final while ensuring upsets during each round. A Norman regional with all nine teams seeded in this way would have been a play-in of No. 32 Arizona and No. 33 Towson for the chance to face No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 16 Arizona State and No. 17 Ohio State in the regional semifinal. The other semifinal would have actually been the same as it was.

This begs the question: Does gymnastics need to base its bracket on basketball? After all, that tournament comprises dozens of games where two teams compete against each other. When the top two teams advance from a four-team meet, maybe a less serpentine strategy could be interesting. Let’s explore a system where every team is four rankings apart, still keeping the tier idea where every regional semifinal contains a team ranked No. 1-8, a team ranked No. 9-16, a team ranked No. 17-24 and a team ranked No. 25-36. This would have made the Norman regional a play-in of No. 29 Stanford and No. 33 Towson for the chance to face No. 5 Alabama, No. 13 Oregon State and No. 21 BYU in the semifinal. The other session would have been No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 9 California, No. 17 Ohio State and No. 25 Utah State. Each team being eight rankings apart during the semifinal could either lead to no upsets or to an upset at any level. Regardless, it would create a path for the top teams that is a bit more challenging than it is currently.

SOLUTION: Commit to the Play-ins or Take Them out

I already mentioned the current play-in structure is a bit of an afterthought by the NCAA, an excuse to keep the qualifying teams at 36 despite it making little sense to the new bracket. The simplest solution would be to cut the qualifying teams to 32 and get rid of the play-ins entirely. Considering N.C. State and Stanford, the two teams who have advanced from the play-ins to the top 16, would have been ranked inside the top 32 and been at regionals anyway, it is a solid concept. However, I do not think the answer is cutting teams. Maybe I just want to see more gymnastics. I think making the play-ins more exciting could be as simple as scheduling. Put them in the evening, or even the weekend before. This could increase attention and give the teams the crowds they deserve. It would even offer an opportunity for expansion. I would love to see every regional semifinal contain one team from a play-in meet, meaning there would be eight play-ins instead of four. Teams No. 1-24 would be safe, while teams No. 37-40 would have one last shot to make it in. These two play-in meets could even be combined into a single quad meet where the top two teams advance, aligning with the rest of the postseason format. The only difference is that the advancing teams would need to be split up between the play-in and semifinal round.

An exploratory bracket for the NCAA gymnastics postseason, featuring equitable seeding and four more play-ins.
Here is an example bracket using some of the strategies I mentioned regarding the seeding and play-ins. Could this make the postseason even more exciting?

SOLUTION: Add Another All-Arounder

This is the most straightforward of the strategies I’m exploring and involves no change to the team structure: Allow the second-place all-arounder from a non-advancing team to go to nationals. This is the way it was before, and those were longer competitions with more teams. It only seems natural that every team would have an individual all-around competitor to rotate with. Currently, the top four teams have all-arounders and the bottom four teams switch out an individual specialist on each event. Adding another all-arounder to the mix would give the bottom four a rotation of eight routines as opposed to the top four’s seven. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, as the top four teams still have to wait until everyone is done competing before rotating to the next event. Of course my desire to include everyone shows another opportunity to expand the field, adding an additional event specialist from each regional for a total of 32. This would mean each of the eight teams would have an all-arounder and a specialist on each event, and all rotations would have eight competitors. Maybe this is too much, but it would still be fewer total routines than the previous system—128 routines per session compared to 144 from just the six teams in the old nationals format. Adding a second all-arounder as well as a second event specialist would be tremendously exciting to watch, hopefully giving more schools a chance to shine beyond the team race.

The postseason is brutal no matter how it is planned out, but there are opportunities abound to make the final weeks of NCAA competition a celebration of the best gymnastics in the country. What do you think? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Article by Ryan Wichtendahl

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One comment

  1. the bracket makes for miss matches in the first round of ncaa championship. it maks it possible that the top teams have to compete in one session ) based on regional score.

    also, move championship back to university towns, or at least near one. texas is not a hotbed of ncaa gymnastics.

    and finally, why does the west only get one regional? I liked when there were 6 regionals, as more opportunities for schools to host. rhis year washington was only regional near 1/2 of the country… I guess we could count Oklahoma, but no, we can’t.. them and nc, and auburn all get a regonal?
    no wonder they couldn’t distribute by geography..

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