Underdog or not, Illini ready to go

Underdog or not, Illini ready to go

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois'' men''s gymnastics team is ranked No. 1 heading into this weekend''s NCAA Championships at the Assembly Hall, but that doesn''t mean the Illini feel the pressure of being expected to come out No. 1.

They have Oklahoma to thank for that.

The Sooners, ranked No. 2, are the two-time defending champions and the focus of the team competition, which will be decided Friday and Saturday.

"We never felt we are the favorite or anything like that," Illinois coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "I think we feel like the underdog."

There''s enough evidence to justify that sentiment.

Start with the Sooners'' record at the NCAA championships. Plus, Oklahoma owns the top four all-time scores in team competition, topped by a 225.200 last month. (Illinois owns the next four best scores, headed by a 221.975.)

Then there was the waxing Oklahoma put on the Illini in a dual meet last month, the same meet in which the Sooners posted that now-famous 225. Illinois finished at 221.975, a margin that represents a rout in men''s gymnastics.

"We were beaten badly," Hayasaki said.

So why is Illinois ranked No. 1?

Because it ranks first in the country in floor exercise, pommel horse and parallel bars and is second in vault and third in high bar. Oklahoma is first or second in four events.

Plus, the Illini have improved significantly in their best event, pommel horse, since the Oklahoma meet. While boasting great depth in pommel horse, the Illini were underachieving for most of the season until they switched the lineup.

The competitors remained the same, but the Illini changed the order.

"The general philosophy would be to put your lower start values up (first), and gradually build to your best guy," UI assistant coach Jon Valdez said. "If a judge sees a 9.5 first, and the next guy does a little better, he''s going to get a 9.6. You want to build on each score."

But the Illini''s first three competitors were feeling pressure and were unable to consistently hit their routines. So Hayasaki and Valdez moved Ben Newman, the country''s top-ranked pommel horse competitor, to the first spot in the lineup.

"Everybody felt pressure when some of the guys in the earlier turns made mistakes," Hayasaki said. "They put more pressure on themselves. I think that kind of changed when we put Ben Newman first up.

"We knew he was going to hit that. That took the pressure off the guys that had the latter positions. That truly made a change."

At the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago, Illinois scored a school-record 38.400 on pommel horse, nearly a full point higher than their score at Oklahoma.

With that boost, Illinois enters this weekend with a solid chance to earn its 10th team title, which would tie Penn State for the all-time record. But Illinois hasn''t captured the NCAA Championship since 1989.

Hayasaki is hoping that mind-set will keep the Illini''s mind-set in the proper spot.

"Their training is so much more productive, (having) to prove they are the team to beat," he said. "It''s an intangible, but I can tell because their training is so much more focused, more concentrated and efficient. The last month of training is one of the best I''ve seen."

Competing in front of the home fans won''t hurt, either, though none of the Illini have competed at the Assembly Hall. The facility will feature an NCAA championships first: a platform that will highlight each of the events, a stage that is usually only seen at the Olympics.

"They''re mentally very positive," Hayasaki said. "They feel they''re a little more confident, but it''s important these guys don''t get overconfident. I think we did what we had to do up to this point to prepare for the NCAA Championships."

You can reach Tony Bleill at (217) 351-5605 or via e-mail at tbleill@news-gazette.com.

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