CHAMPAIGN – Illinois wasn''t the only powerhouse that struggled to reach tonight''s team finals.
Two-time defending champion Oklahoma had a closer scare than the top-ranked Illini, earning the last of three qualifying spots from Friday''s afternoon session at the Assembly Hall.
Heading into the final event, Oklahoma was in second place but only 0.15 point ahead of Michigan and 0.925 ahead of Iowa. On the high bar, three of the first four Sooners had rough routines, but Jamie Henderson (9.550) and Quinn Rowell (9.550) pulled their team out of the fire.
Penn State (218.700) took first, followed by Michigan (218.450) and Oklahoma (217.750).
"We had a bad day," Oklahoma coach Mark Williams said. "As a whole, they were just very tentative, not attacking."
Illinois-Chicago (207.775) was fifth.
Conner likes college
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner won a pair of NCAA all-around championships for Oklahoma in the late 1970s, and he''s glad to see many of the country''s top gymnasts electing to compete collegiately.
Top young gymnasts can choose to go to college or skip it, instead training with the national program.
"I support going the college route," said Conner, working as an ESPN commentator this weekend. "College makes you competition tough. You''ve got a dozen meets or so a year, plus the international meets. A lot of the elite international guys that don''t compete in college only compete three, four, five times a year.
"Our biggest success as a team came in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and all of us came from really strong college programs. I was at Oklahoma, we had three guys from UCLA and two from Nebraska."
Conner said rules changes have helped college competition as well. Until 2001, colleges used a different scoring system.
"There was a little bit of a migration away from college because guys didn''t want to train under easier rules all year and then have to step it up for (international competition)," he said. "So they smartly demanded that the college guys compete under the Olympic rules, which took away that motivation not to go to college.
"I think it''s a positive thing because gymnastics is a very individual sport, and there''s no better place to get some team experience than competing in college."
Many of the country''s top college gymnasts, like Ohio State''s Randy Monahan, Stanford''s Brad Gill and Illinois'' Justin Spring, will get a shot to make an international impact.
"They''re definitely candidates (for the national team)," Conner said. "They''re as good as anybody. This year there''s a lot of competition for those spots because we happen to be a particularly deep team this year, which we haven''t been in a long time. There''s about 16 of them looking for six spots on the Olympic team."
As for Illinois, Conner said the team''s first-day performances should be kept in perspective.
"You don''t want to blow it all on Day 1," he said, "but you don''t want to hold back too much or you''re not going to make it to Day 2. I think they played that smartly. Yoshi (Hayasaki) is going to play with his lineup a little bit. He has some options there."
ESPN''s coverage of the championships will air from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Thursday on ESPN2.
Conner''s assessment of the Illini''s lineup figures to be correct. Hayasaki indicated a few lineup changes could be in store for tonight''s team finals.
"It''s important to have the first guy hit his routine," Hayasaki said. "And we didn''t do that. The first guy up put a little pressure on the rest of the guys. We''re going to have to make some minor changes to the lineup tomorrow to make sure the first couple routines are good enough that we don''t put that kind of pressure on the rest of the guys."
Generally, teams like to put their best competitors in an event toward the back of the lineup, which allows judges the room to gradually increase their scores as the better athletes come up.
Feet on the floor
Friday''s competition showcased an NCAA first: each of the six apparatuses was placed on a 3-foot-high platform, similar to what''s used in international competitions.
"For me, it really wasn''t that different. I''m kind of used to it," said Illinois'' Adam Pummer, who performed on podium setups in national competitions at younger levels. "It''s really neat, a lot better than last year. It''s a lot more intense."
Pummer said about half the 12-member squad had experience with podiums. It does require a slight mental adjustment.
"There''s a lot more focus on you, so it''s a little more nerve-racking," he said. "But it doesn''t really affect the equipment that much."
Illinois'' Ben Newman found that it''s possible, though.
"Right when I walked up to do my pommel horse set, I saw a guy had just gone on his first (tumbling) pass on floor exercise and a guy had just gone on still rings, and the (pommel) horse was shaking a little because it''s not on solid ground," Newman said. "So that was a little intimidating at first. But you have to stay strong."