Now a full month into the 2023 NCAA gymnastics season, the national championships landscape is starting to come into focus as the Sooners have emerged as the leaders of the pack in their quest for a repeat. Oklahoma is in a class of its own, becoming the first team to notch straight As this year, as next-best challengers Florida, Michigan, and Utah are still an event or two from looking like potential champions. Before matchups like UCLA at Utah, LSU at Auburn, California at Oregon State, and Metroplex sort things out further over the next two weeks, it’s time for a check-in with the top teams.
In 2023, the NCAA Report Card will measure which teams look like championship teams right now, meaning grades will not be cumulative. Rather, they’ll reflect averages over the most recent two weeks of competition—because what matters most in the postseason anyways is who’s hot at the right time. With the average NCAA champions’ score from the last five years now totaling 198.250, the standards for grades are rising, too. An event total of 49.600 or better is now required for an A+, 49.550 or better for an A, 49.500 for an A-, and the pattern continuing in five-hundredths of a point decreases per plus/minus.
The biggest upside to this new system is that it will indicate which teams have picked up momentum in a way that traditional rankings can’t. Grades will appear harsher at first because of this change—especially early in the season—but with a clean slate every two weeks, schools have the opportunity to rebound easily.
Top of the Class
One Month Check-In: Two weeks into the season, there was no consensus top team in the NCAA, and one month into the season the Sooners have undoubtedly looked the best so far. Oklahoma has straight As while no other program has more than one, including a dazzling A+ on vault where five Sooners have a season-bests of 9.950 or better. They’re sticking, making few mistakes, not counting bad scores when they do miss, checking every box, and doing it against top 10 competition. Right now, Oklahoma is in a position where all it needs to do is keep it up, as it’s competing at a championship level heading into February.
One Month Check-In: The Gators made it through January unscathed relatively easily, as mission “Get Trinity Thomas a Team Title” is still on track. It’s been a steady attack from Florida, but floor has seen a bit of a drop off the last two weeks, with most scores plateauing below 9.9 as it works through its depth to find its ideal six. The most puzzling situation for the Gators is Sloane Blakely, whose mistake-prone freshman season has seeped into her sophomore year. Blakely’s scoring potential is essential to a championship team—she earned a 10.0 on floor in a 39.675 all-around performance last March—but she’s also only hit 9.8 or better in 50% of her routines this season. It’s up to Jenny Rowland to decide how many events Florida can afford to risk Blakely on if her consistency doesn’t improve over the next few weeks.
One Month Check-In: The Wolverines have seen a bit of regression over the last two weeks as they’ve wisely explored depth, but beam continues to be an issue as it resulted in an upset loss at rival Michigan State. It’s a team that’s competing much better at home than on the road, as both away meets have seen Michigan count balance checks on beam after suffering a fall. The routines are there—seven Wolverines have career highs of 9.9-plus on the event—but they have to hit. However, sitting third in the nation with just one real problem to solve isn’t a bad place to be about a third of the way through the season.
One Month Check-In: One of the events the Utes fell behind on in the title race the last few years was vault, where they lacked the difficulty and dynamics to match the lineups of Oklahoma, Michigan, and Florida—the only teams to beat them at NCAAs the last two years. As expected, adding transfer Abby Brenner’s and freshman Makenna Smith’s consistent and 10.0 start values to the lineup has proven effective, but Jillian Hoffman’s surprise Yurchenko one and a half for a debut 9.950 gives Utah the opportunity to match the full difficulty the last two national champions have showcased. Bars and floor are still a work in progress in eliminating minor form breaks, but the Utes are on a great trajectory with their steady improvements week to week.
Plenty of Potential
One Month Check-In: Auburn’s season has been consistent overall, but just one breakout vault and floor rotation each to boost its totals puts its grades just above the average mark. Olympic champ Sunisa Lee is doing her job, coming for all the titles in her last collegiate season, but the rest of the roster hasn’t yet returned to team final status. Sitting in sixth with plenty more to come from Derrian Gobourne, Cassie Stevens, and Sophia Groth isn’t a bad place to be four weeks into 2023, though.
One Month Check-In: After some floor misses and a vault disaster sans eMjae Frazier nearly cost California a win at Arizona, the dynamic freshman returned to boost the team back to its mid-197 form as it boasts some of the most consistent event totals in the nation. Outside of those two iffy rotations, its other 14 rotations have all scored between 49.150 and 49.475, with most on the higher end of that scale. There’s still a little room to grow in the team score as Nevaeh DeSouza hasn’t been as 9.9-adept as before—particularly on the leg events—but if the Golden Bears can maintain their stable scoring, they’ll be in the nationals picture all season long.
One Month Check-In: Denver’s average and consistent grades don’t reflect its performances, as it’s been up and down to start the season as it works Lynnzee Brown back into lineups. The Pioneers have shown qualities of a championship contender—like boasting vault and beam season highs above 49.500 and hitting a season-best team score against Oklahoma—but they also continually leave tenths on the table with small errors that over time add up. Their best-possible score with season highs, 198.025, is far greater than their actual best performance of 197.425, with Denver needing to figure out how to put it all together on the same day to make the most of Brown’s sixth and final season.
One Month Check-In: Is this finally Kentucky’s year? Having finished the year ranked no lower than 14th since 2017 but only making NCAAs once in that timespan—the Wildcats’ M.O. has been as a perennial bubble team. This year they enter the second month of the season in the top 10 with a season-best that ranks sixth and statement wins over Alabama and LSU, showing flashes of a team that could not only make nationals but contend for the final. Their two lowest scores and losses have come on the road, so there are still kinks to work out, but there’s no denying that the Wildcats are on the way up. Low chests on the landings of Kentucky’s barrage of front handspring pike halves on vault will have to improve to maximize the 9.9s it can get, but adding Bridget Bourque’s Yurchenko one and a half to the top six gives it a competitive number of 10.0 start values. More 9.975s like the one Isabella Magnelli put up on beam in the program-record 197.825 will be necessary to keep pace as the season continues on.
One Month Check-In: In a major plot twist, LSU vault and floor are scoring higher without Kiya Johnson in the lineup than they did with her in it, as her absence has been felt much more on bars and beam. Inspired performances on the leg events have come with the resurgence of Chase Brock and Sierra Ballard, but the Tigers’ season high of 49.225 on beam is concerning. In all but one meet, half of the beam lineup has failed to hit 9.800, which has already proven fatal, as LSU is only 1-4 on the season. Thankfully, wins and losses don’t count for much other than the regular season conference title and a bit of motivation, as the Tigers still hold onto a top-10 ranking and can pose a threat should the beam woes work themselves out.
One Month Check-In: One of the biggest turnarounds of the opening month of the season goes to the Spartans, whose recent 197 and near-197 are far more indicative of the talent on this roster than their debut 196s. Nikki Smith’s recent 39.525 in the all-around is a good sign that the freshman has settled in, but she and Gabrielle Stephen can’t be the only ones to consistently bring in the 9.9s.
One Month Check-In: A trio of 197s, including repeat 197.275 season highs in a double header, have soared the Beavers back up the rankings as they continue to dispel their slow start on bars. Oregon State is in a similar position to conference-mate California, with every event total over the last two weeks landing between 49.175 and 49.525 with room to grow as stalwart all-arounder Madi Dagen hasn’t been her usual self so far—especially on vault. Bars continues to be the weak link, as it’s been the lowest total in all but one of the Beavers’ meets, with their hopes of working themselves onto the good side of the nationals bubble hinging on their ability to find even a single 9.9 to compliment Jade Carey’s.
One Month Check-In: After an incredibly hot start to the season, the Bruins have cooled off a bit with a lack of difficulty on vault and tentative beam work bogging down team totals the last two weekends and allowing Oregon State to snag a tie to spoil their home opener. Even if Chae Campbell sticks her Yurchenko full for a 9.950 every meet, only two 10.0 start values and no upgrades on the table puts UCLA at a big disadvantage to the rest of the top 10—especially when Jordan Chiles is still prone to the occasional 9.650. Ana Padurariu hit her beam exhibition last weekend and should insert some confidence into the lineup soon, but with only one of four beam outings going above 49, it’s going to take more than one improved score to keep the Bruins in the title conversation.
Room for Improvement
One Month Check-In: The Ashley Johnston era has gotten off to a bit of a slower start than expected, as Alabama currently sits outside the top 10 after landing at fifth in our preseason poll. It hasn’t been able to pick up any momentum with three sub-197s to open the year and then finally breaking the barrier to still lose at Kentucky. The Crimson Tide doesn’t rank in the top 10 on any event, as it didn’t break 49.500 anywhere until Makarri Doggette’s perfect bars set propelled it to a 49.625 that we’d normally expect from this lineup. Outside of Gabby Gladiuex, the highly ranked freshman class hasn’t been able to produce championship-caliber scores yet, with a glaring absence of Karis German and the rest of the crew unable to hit a routine for even a 9.8. However, most of the routines are coming from upperclassmen who will need to find consistency and landings soon if they want to compete at nationals—or even the evening session of SECs.
One Month Check-In: The Hawkeyes made a bit of a postseason run last year, eliminating LSU in upset fashion to advance to the regional final where they weren’t too far off from another surprise trip to the big show, and last week showed a glimpse of that potential. Linda Zivat popped off for a 9.975 on vault, and the floor lineup continues to impress as Jerquavia Henderson has prevented it from falling off after the graduation of Lauren Guerin. However, bars must make significant improvements if Iowa wants to realistically be on the nationals bubble.
One Month Check-In: The Tigers didn’t score their first 197 of 2022 until February and still managed to finish fifth by the end of the season, but for a team returning every routine from that squad to plateau under that mark is undoubtedly a disappointment. Even with a trio of 10.0 start values and Amari Celestine in the lineup, Missouri continues to struggle on vault and prevent itself from building upon last year’s run. The beam regression is likely a fluke after its prowess on the event last season and showings earlier on in this one, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
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Article by Brandis Heffner
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