CHAMPAIGN — Daniel Ribeiro noticed a change in Michael Paradise when this season started. The Illinois junior has always had the physical skills and talent necessary to compete on pommel horse. The mental side, said Ribeiro, an Illinois assistant and two-time pommel horse national champion, was something Paradise couldn’t consistently add into the mix.
"He hadn’t been able to put it together his first two years," Ribeiro said. "We’ve been working on that constantly for two straight years. He just clicked at the beginning of this year."
Paradise clicked Friday night in the NCAA championships qualifiers at State Farm Center, too. The Bartlett native scored 14.833 on the pommel horse — the highest score from both sessions combined —to help Illinois reach the Super Six team finals in pursuit of its 11th national championship in program history.
"Honestly, it’s been a mindset change," Paradise said. "I just got this confidence in myself and with the routine I’m doing. No matter the circumstance —no matter what’s going on —I feel confident I can get up there and hit the routine the best I can. That’s the biggest change this year because my first two years I never had that."
Illinois finished second as a team in its Friday night session behind four-time defending champion Oklahoma. Penn State was the third team to advance to today’s team finals. A 14.900 from defending still rings national champion Alex Diab — part of a season-best mark on the year in the event for the Illini —also helped their cause after a slow start.
"I think we really turned it around and finished the event the best we could," Illinois coach Justin Spring said after his team was in fifth following a 64.698 on parallel bars. "Then we charged forward. … Can we be nine points better (today) to catch OU? Maybe. Maybe. We were far from perfect (Friday). Some really good high points, but a lot — a lot — of ground to gain (today)."
Paradise competed behind 2016 NCAA pommel horse champion Brandon Ngai during his first two seasons at Illinois. Ngai’s graduation, Ribeiro said, apparently sparked something in Paradise.
"I don’t know what it was exactly, but the second Brandon left he was the top dog on this team," Ribeiro said. "I don’t know if it was a confidence thing or belief thing that he was the best in the gym, but he just skyrocketed. You can see the difference between his results last year and this year."
Paradise entered Friday’s qualifier ranked second in the nation on pommel horse. His top score was 0.200 points lower than two-time defending NCAA champion Stephen Nedoroscik, but his average score this season was better than the Penn State junior. Paradise topped Nedoroscik by 0.333 points Friday night.
"He took the reins and has just charged," Spring said of Paradise. "He’s gotten stronger. He’s taken a leadership role and commanded others to be better on the pommel horse. He’s really been a mini team captain on pommel horse, but certainly taken ownership of his own routine. It’s actually unbelievable. He’s completely destroyed every routine he’s done this year."
Paradise maxed out at 14.300 last season as a sophomore and only had three scores at 14.000 or higher. This season? Paradise’s lowest score was a 14.200 in the second meet of the year at the Windy City Invite in Chicago, and he hit a 15.100 in the Big Ten team finals earlier this month.
"I would go as far as saying this was one of the greatest seasons ever for a pommel horse guy in Illinois," Ribeiro said. "He hasn’t missed a single routine. Even in my career, every year I missed at least one or two. That’s been unbelievable really. I’ve never had an athlete do that before."
Paradise’s path to an NCAA title will be a familiar one. Three of the top four contenders are all from the Big Ten, including Nedoroscik and Ohio State’s Alec Yoder. Oklahoma’s Yul Moldauer is the fourth. Paradise beat both Nedoroscik and Yoder on the first day of the Big Ten championships but finished third during the individual event finals in Iowa City, Iowa, earlier this month.
"One of those three guys I almost guarantee is going to take it unless they all melt," Ribeiro said of the Big Ten trio. "That’s his competition, and he’s ready to take them on. He handled it at Big Tens. That gave him some confidence as well. Alec Yoder is a world championship team member. Stephen Nedoroscik is back-to-back NCAA champion and just competed at the World Cup in Qatar. He went out and beat them first day of Big Tens."
One, small mistake in Iowa City during the event finals cost Paradise a Big Ten title.
"If he can fix that, he can come out here and beat two of the best guys in the world," Ribeiro said. "I think it’s opening up his eyes a little bit to where he could be in the future. That’s one of the favorite parts of my job is when the guys realize the greater potential they have — that next level — and start to have this passion for going further and taking it even further than the best. It’s open ended. There’s no real cap in gymnastics anymore."
Paradise would join fairly elite company at Illinois should he win today. Eleven former Illini have claimed a pommel horse championship, but only four have won since 1980. Ribeiro had two of them in 2009 and 2011.
"Matthew Paradise right now has a chance to win the national title on the same event I did 10 years later, which I think is really cool for both of us," Ribeiro said. "Now, my goal is to have an athlete that does it — coach someone that does the same thing."