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NCAA Championships Preview 12 Teams Are Ready To Kick Things Off Friday In Chicago

We've finally made it to NCAA Championships week! 2018 is the first of two years in a row where the event will be held in the state of Illinois (Champaign in 2019). If you're reading this and you live in the surrounding Chicago-area, there's no excuse not to head to the UIC Pavilion on Friday & Saturday. You can check out the link to buy tickets here.

For the third year in a row, NCAA's will boast the same 12-team field:

Friday's qualifying sessions (with the top-three finishing teams in each session advancing to team finals) have been divided up as follows:

Afternoon Session (1pm CST): Minnesota (No. 2), Michigan (No. 3), Stanford (No. 6), Nebraska (No. 7), Navy (No. 10) & Air Force (No. 11)

Evening Session (7pm CST): Oklahoma (No. 1), Illinois (No. 4), Ohio State (No. 5), Penn State (No. 8), Iowa (No. 9) & California (No. 12)

It's no secret that the Oklahoma Sooners will be coming into the Windy City as favorites to raise a trophy for the fourth year in a row. The stats show it, as does their 9.9-point margin of victory at the recent MPSF Championships.

Oklahoma won their third-consecutive NCAA title in 2017 at West Point (photo: Jess Frankl)

Aside from the qualifying teams, here are the individual competitors that will compete alongside the 12-team field for a chance at National Champion/All-America honors:

2017 NCAA Championships Individual Champions:

All-Around: Akash Modi, STAN

Floor Exercise: Yul Moldauer, OU

Pommel Horse: Stephen Nedoroscik, PSU

Still Rings: Yul Moldauer, OU

Vault: Anthony McCallum, MICH

Parallel Bars: Akash Modi, STAN

High Bar: Robert Neff, STAN

Now for a deeper look at the teams competing this weekend:

1. Oklahoma Sooners

Yul Moldauer will look to win the NCAA all-around title for the second time in three seasons (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 1st - MPSF
  • 2018 High/Average: 429.55/416.09
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Gage Dyer (13th - 14.075), PH - Yul Moldauer (6th - 14.338), SR - Moldauer (1st - 14.75), VT - Hunter Justus (6th - 14.638), PB - Moldauer (1st - 14.938) & HB - Genki Suzuki (1st - 14.4)

The Sooners ride a four-year long winning streak into the 2018 NCAA Championships. That's correct -- the last time Oklahoma lost a meet was the 2014 NCAA Team Finals. That means just one gymnast on the roster, Reese Rickett, has experienced a loss during their career.

Just in case you haven't been following NCAA gymnastics for the past three years, Yul Moldauer will be the one to watch after winning all-around at this meet in 2016 and finishing as runner-up in 2017.

There will be plenty of opportunity for Oklahoma to come out of Chicago with individual hardware. At the moment, they own ten individual top-10 NCAA rankings.

2. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota will look to bounce back from a fifth-place finish at B1G's (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 5th - B1G
  • 2018 High/Average: 419.1/405.54
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Shane Wiskus (2nd - 14.5), PH - Vitali Kan (9th - 13.8), SR - Yaroslav Pochinka (14th - 13.938), VT - Alex Wittenberg (8th - 14.613), PB - Wiskus (6th - 14.175) & HB - Wiskus/Tristan Duran (t9th - 13.863)

Despite not having their best showing at Big Ten Championships, Minnesota will head into Friday's afternoon qualifying session as the No. 2 team in the country. "This is such an exciting moment for Gopher gymnastics," head coach Mike Burns told GopherSports.com. "To be ranked No. 2 in the country heading into the Big Dance should provide us with the necessary confidence to go in and attack our performance with great resolve."

In the big picture, coach Burns has this Minnesota program riding a wave of momentum. At last year's NCAA Championships, the Gophers finished top-five for the first time since 2002. Led by freshman Shane Wiskus & senior Tristan Duran, they're going to have a great opportunity of bettering their 2017 result.

3. Michigan Wolverines

Michigan is coming off a strong second-place finish at B1G's (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 2nd - B1G
  • 2018 High/Average: 417.7/406.956
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Jacob Moore (1st - 14.638), PH - Mack Lasker (16th - 13.725), SR - Dmitri Belanovski (13th -13.975), VT - Emyre Cole (5th - 14.65), PB - Cameron Bock (9th - 14.063) & HB - Bock (14th - 13.819)

We're beginning to see the fruits of Michigan's recruiting labor after a surprising runner-up finish at B1G's. With an impressive 408.6 at that meet, it's hard to imagine the Wolverines not surviving Friday's afternoon session and earning a berth into team finals.

One Wolverine will be seeking a bit of history this weekend. Junior Anthony McCallum is looking to become the third ever three-time NCAA VT champion. He'd be joining elite company with New Mexico's Chad Fox (1986-88) and Chicago's Earl Shanken (1940-42) being the only two to accomplish the feat.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Bobby Baker was phenomenal at B1G's (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 1st - B1G
  • 2018 High/Average: 413.9/406.45
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Sebastian Quiana (4th - 14.35), PH - Brandon Ngai (1st - 15.075), SR - Alex Diab (2nd - 14.638), VT - Bobby Baker (3rd - 14.75), PB - Johnny Jacobson (9th - 14.063) & HB - Tyson Bull (t2nd - 14.338)

Illinois was dead in the water until Bobby Baker rose from the dead to compete at B1G's. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but things were looking bleak as the team didn't expect to have the senior in the all-around spot. Now that he's proven healthy (enough), Illinois can be considered a contender to the Oklahoma throne. It would, however, take a meet like they had at conference, plus a little bit more.

"Our team has been looking forward to this event for the last two years knowing that it is the biggest and most important meet of the year and it is essentially a pseudo-home competition," Justin Spring told FightingIllini.com about the UIC-hosted meet.

The Illini will have a fair shot at a couple of individual titles with gymnasts like Brandon Ngai, Alex Diab & Tyson Bull.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

Sean Melton (left) & Alec Yoder (right) finished 1-2 in the all-around at B1G's (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 4th - B1G
  • 2018 High/Average: 414.9/407.025
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Sean Neighbarger (19th - 14.0), PH - Alec Yoder (2nd - 15.063), SR - Sean Melton (3rd - 14.625), VT - Neighbarger (7th - 14.625), PB - Melton (3rd - 14.263) & HB - Melton (5th - 14.063)

This weekend will mark the end of a run for one of the best duos the NCAA has seen in a while. It will be the last competition for Sean Melton while his sidekick (or maybe it's the other way around? They can decide), Alec Yoder will still have a year to go. The pair finished 1-2 in the all-around at B1G's two weeks ago. While it will be tough to repeat that at NCAA's with Moldauer lurking, we could easily see them both finish in the top-three.

As opposed to the last two years, the Buckeyes are no shoo-in for team finals. Just as was the case at conference, keep a close eye on the front-end of Ohio State's lineups; those will be the routines that determine whether or not they're competing as a team on Saturday.

6. Stanford Cardinal

Robert Neff will look for a second-straight national title on HB (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 2nd - MPSF
  • 2018 High/Average: 414.1/406.475
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Robert Neff (27th - 13.85), PH - Joey Ringer (44th - 13.038), SR - Thomas Lee (22nd - 13.788), VT - Bailey Perez (20th - 14.288), PB - Blake Sun (4th - 14.225) & HB - Robert Neff (t2nd - 14.338)

The transition from the Akash Modi-era hasn't been an easy one for Stanford. They've definitely flashed the same Cardinal greatness (three scores of 410+), but there are weaknesses for this team; pommel horse (No. 11 in NCAA) has especially been a thorn in their side.

Luckily, they've still got Robert Neff, the 2017 NCAA HB champion. Neff will be in the running for that same distinction, along with having a chance at placing high in the all-around (though he only competed four events at MPSF's).

Stanford is in possession of one of the more impressive streaks in the NCAA: they've placed top-five at NCAA's every year dating back to 2006.

7. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Jake Bonnay (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 6th - B1G
  • 2018 High/Average: 416.05/407.189
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Jake Bonnay (5th - 14.313), PH - Antonio Castro (4th - 14.45), SR - Alex Magsam (17th - 13.863), VT - Anton Stephenson (1st - 14.938), PB - A. Stephenson (12th - 13.963) & HB - Bonnay (20th - 13.7)

After qualifying into team finals last year for the first time since 1999, Nebraska will be looking to make that the norm. In order to do so, they'll have to beat at least one of the following teams from their qualifying session: Stanford, Michigan or Minnesota.

One of their best gymnasts, Anton Stephenson, is on fire coming out of B1G's; the junior won both VT & PB (co-champion) and was three-quarters of a tenth away from sharing a FX title as well. We'll have to see if the Huskers have any sticks left over after their weekend in Ann Arbor.

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

Greg Tamargo (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 3rd - B1G
  • 2018 High/Average: 417.4/405.44
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Brennan Pantazis (6th - 14.256), PH - Stephen Nedoroscik (3rd - 14.738), SR - Noah Roberson (6th - 14.15), VT - Brayden Borromeo (19th - 14.3), PB - Sam Zakutney (2nd - 14.413) & HB - Zakutney (13th - 13.825)

Penn State will come into Chicago as an underdog, but I'm pretty sure that's how they like it. Randy Jepson's team went into B1G's the same way and ended up making the podium with a third-place finish. This is a well-rounded group that doesn't really have a single weak event (they rank top-eight nationally on all six events).

Individually, Stephen Nedoroscik will headline things. The sophomore, fresh off a B1G PH title, will try his best to make it 2/2 in NCAA titles. When he won in 2017, he became just the fourth Penn State freshman ever to bring home an NCAA individual championship.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes

Austin Hodges (photo: Jess Frankl)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 7th - B1G
  • 2018 High/Average: 411.05/400.755
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Bennet Huang (23rd - 13.9), PH - Austin Hodges (5th - 14.375), SR - Jake Brodarzon (20th - 13.8), VT - Dylan Ellsworth (4th - 14.688), PB - Hodges (15th - 13.938) & HB - Hodges/Huang (t31st - 13.363)

Iowa will be looking for their first trip back to team finals since 2015. This is a fairly young team; they relied on underclassmen for 50% of their counting routines at B1G's. Bennet Huang will be looking to cap off what has been a fantastic freshman campaign. Coming into this weekend, he ranks as the No. 8 all-around competitor in the NCAA.

Others leading the charge for the Hawkeyes will two seniors, Dylan Ellsworth & Austin Hodges. Both offer great opportunities to bring All-America accolades back to Iowa City.

10. Navy Midshipmen

Navy is fresh off an ECAC conference title (photo via NavySports.com)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 1st - ECAC
  • 2018 High/Average: 405.55/395.808
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Frank Bradley (33rd - 13.763), PH - David Toussaint (8th - 13.85), SR - Christian Correale/Ryan McVay (t40th - 13.45), VT - Bradley (t17th - 14.313), PB - Tanner West (t25th - 13.625) & HB - McVay (17th - 13.75)

The third conference winner to qualify into the field of twelve is the Navy Midshipmen. If you want to talk about a young team that's ready to win right now (as evidenced by the ECAC title), Navy's it. 77% of their counting routines at conference were done by freshmen or sophomores. This weekend should provide a pretty good glimpse into what we're going to see from the Mids for the next couple of years to come.

Going along with the theme of inexperience, Navy's highest ranking individual is freshman David Toussaint on PH. He's been as consistent as anyone in the country (12/13 routines in 2018 have gone 13.1+) and should have a chance at battling for top-eight.

11. Air Force Falcons

Michael Graft (photo via GoAirForceFalcons.com)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 4th - MPSF
  • 2018 High/Average: 403.85/394.295
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Jonah Urlaub (t37th - 13.675), PH - Fletcher Braunton (21st - 13.55), SR - Braunton (12th - 13.988), VT - Christian Kalustian (t31st - 14.163), PB - Jonathon Fornoff (31st - 13.563) & HB - Lukas Texeira (6th - 14.05)

For the eighth year in a row, Air Force qualified into the NCAA Championships as a team. Of late, the difference maker for the Falcons has been junior Jonah Urlaub. He was the team's top scorer at MPSF Championships on three events: FX, VT & PB.

Over the entire season, Air Force's MVP (according to RoadToNationals.com) was actually a freshman, Frankie Valentin. He and Fletcher Braunton will be another two key gymnasts if Air Force wants to make a run at beating any of the other five teams in the afternoon session.

12. California Golden Bears

Yordan Aleksandrov (photo via Pac-12)
  • Conference Championship Finish: 3rd - MPSF
  • 2018 High/Average: 398.95/392.981
  • Top Scorers On Each Event (NCAA Rank - NQA): FX - Aaron Mah (12th - 14.1), PH - Mah (t40th - 13.05), SR - Harrison Plate (t25th - 13.65), VT - Mah (60th - 13.925), PB - Yordan Aleksandrov (t7th - 14.1) & HB - Aleksandrov (7th - 13.975)

Cal qualifies into the evening session of NCAA's under the watch of first year head coach, JT Okada. They'll be coming off one of their better meets of the season, MPSF's, in which they placed third with a score of 393.65. "As we start off on the road to NCAA qualifier this week I can't help but think about the journey we've taken to get here," Okada said to CalBears.com. "The team has given every effort I've asked of them and worked tirelessly to make it to this point. For that I'm very proud and thankful."

Aaron Mah (FX) & Yordan Aleksandrov (PB & HB) will offer the Bears their best chance at some individual success this weekend.

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Logan Bradley
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Photos: Jess Frankl

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