Gymnastics is a unique sport in the college sports landscape. There are only 81 NCAA gymnastics programs with 62 competing at the Division I level. Because of the relatively small number of teams, DI teams regularly compete against DII and DIII teams during the regular season.
The small number of teams also means that some conferences have affiliate programs that only compete in that sport. The Big 12 is one of those conferences. The University of Denver competes in Big 12 gymnastics.
There are no DI gymnastics teams in Texas despite the large number of elite gymnasts that come from that state. It has only one gymnastics program at all, DII Texas Woman’s University. So, the loss of the University of Texas after this season has no effect on the conference. The loss of Oklahoma is another matter.
The Sooners are one of the elite programs in the country. While wins and losses are not the be-all and end-all of college gymnastics, having a 28-2 record like OU did last season is a rarity. Winning six national titles is, too.
The Sooners are the reigning national champions. They have been to the finals 11 times and won the Big 12 championship 13 times. All of that came in the last 14 years.
Arizona doesn’t have to worry about that, but that doesn’t mean the conference will be easy. In fact, it will definitely have more depth as it almost doubles in size over the next two years, going from just four teams to seven.
The 2023-24 additions
Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF do not field teams, so BYU is the only team joining the league this year. The Cougars finished 4-11 last season for their first losing season since 2016-17. One of those losses was at the hands of Arizona.
BYU has competed in gymnastics since 1972-73. It has a long history of qualifying for the postseason, missing only eight AIAW or NCAA postseasons over its 50 years in existence. (There was no postseason in 2020.) The Cougars have advanced to nationals as a team 11 times, the last one coming in 2004-05.
BYU will face plenty of challenges in the Big 12. It will be competing against teams with recent national titles. It could be a struggle for the Cougars.
The Big 12 Old Guard
With Oklahoma leaving, the Big 12 old guard will consist of Denver, Iowa State, and West Virginia. The heavy hitter in this group is Denver.
The Big 12 sent three teams to regionals last year. Two of them advanced to the national finals with the Pioneers accompanying the Sooners. Denver finished eighth in the country. It has finished in the top 15 every year since 2016 and the top 10 five times in the past six years.
After the 2023 regular season, West Virginia was one spot behind Arizona in the national qualifying score rankings. The Mountaineers jumped the Wildcats in the bracket and got the final automatic regional spot due to geography, forcing Arizona to compete in the play-in meet at Denver. The Wildcats will have the opportunity to get some revenge during the 2025 season.
Last season was the 37th NCAA regional appearance for the Mountaineers, stretching back to 1983. They have four appearances in the finals with the last one in 2000. Prior to the NCAA sanctioning women’s sports, they had four AIAW regional appearances and one berth in the championship meet.
Iowa State took a tumble last year, ending the season in 44th place. That was a 19-place drop from the previous season. It was a disappointing finish for a program that has been to NCAA regionals 26 times and NCAA finals four times in its history. The Cyclones also regularly qualified for AIAW regionals before the NCAA governed women’s sports.
As in several women’s sports, Colorado is the only school joining the Big 12 that does not have a gymnastics team. Of the three that do, Utah is by far the most accomplished. The Red Rocks are very likely to take over Oklahoma’s spot as the dominant program in the league, although Denver will certainly give it a run for its money.
Utah was one of the last four teams standing at nationals last year. The Red Rocks finished third. It wasn’t a surprise. They have been to either the AIAW or NCAA postseason every year since 1976. Each year, they advanced to the national championships. They won it all five times in the NCAA and once in the AIAW. They were NCAA runners-up three times.
ASU has had two straight years of considerable improvement. It has made the past five NCAA postseasons. In 2022, it tied for the regular season Pac-12 title.
Prior to that, the Sun Devils struggled. They did not make the postseason from 2015-17. They finished last or next to last in the Pac-12 from 2013-17 and had not finished above sixth since 2006.
Arizona had a few years of instability after head coach Bill Ryden retired. Tabitha Yim was originally hired to coach the team, but she left to take over her alma mater just before the 2017-18 school year started. John Court has the program back on solid footing.
UA has been to all but one NCAA postseason since 1987. The one season it missed was the year Yim left to take over Stanford. The GymCats have sent an individual to nationals twice in the past three years and Malia Hargrove narrowly missed going again last season. She missed advancing on vault by the tiebreaker.
The program has finished in the top 10 six times stretching back to 1984. It finished 11th four additional times, the last time in 2002.
The introduction of four new teams over the next two seasons will likely cause changes in conference scheduling. In the past, each Big 12 team had just three conference meets because there were only four schools fielding teams. With seven teams in the conference beginning with the 2025 season, it should become more like the current Pac-12 where the eight teams faced six or seven of their conference opponents each year.
Regardless of how the conference schedules, it should be a competitive league. After Utah and Denver, there is currently quite a drop to ASU. There’s a smaller drop to the rest of the teams. While the Red Rocks and Pioneers will likely battle for the league title with Utah having the edge, the other five teams could have their names put in a hat to draw for final standings. They all should be able to make regionals more often than not.
Arizona will have just three gymnasts from the Pacific Coast states next season. Two are from California. The GymCats also have one Tucsonan and two gymnasts from Nevada to complete their Western contingent. That is fairly typical of the program.
Like many programs, Arizona gets most of its talent from Texas. Seven of the 21 athletes on the team come from that state, making it by far the biggest supplier of recruits.
Because Texas lacks a DI gymnastics program despite the number of high-level club teams in the state, it’s a prime recruiting ground. Performing near home is not a lure for these gymnasts since there simply aren't any opportunities. Getting a gymnastics scholarship at one of the 62 DI programs in the country is the goal.
The other major region supplying recruits is the Midwest. Arizona pulls athletes from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Nebraska.
The change of conference shouldn’t have an effect on the GymCats’ recruiting. Texas and the Midwest will still be the focus with a few local kids and a few internationals thrown in.
Out-of-conference competition in gymnastics generally consists of quad meets with four teams competing, although there are sometimes dual meets with just two teams. Competition within the conference consists of dual meets until the league championships.
There may be challenges getting to Ames, Iowa and Morgantown, WV. The rest of the league is fairly accessible. DU and Utah both have major airports in their metros. Provo is 45 minutes from Salt Lake and also has its own small airport. ASU is less than a two-hour drive from Tucson. Gymnastics should not see a major change in its travel.
ESPN+ is the home of Big 12 NOW. That should be the home of most conference gymnastics meets. It is also the home of most of the postseason.