No. 1 Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn St. Head NCAA Gymnastics Field

Wednesday, April 11th 2007, 7:48 pm
By: News On 6

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) _ Ohio State heads into an NCAA tournament with a No. 1 ranking and national title aspirations. Sound familiar?

After falling just short this year in football and basketball, the Buckeyes hope to break through this week at the NCAA men's gymnastics championship.

``This is more exciting than an Olympic competition,'' Ohio State coach Miles Avery said Wednesday before warmups. ``We certainly prepared very well to peak at the end of the year.''

Other contenders include powerhouse Oklahoma, which is gunning for a third-straight team crown; and Penn State, which hopes to feed off the energy of hosting the tournament on campus.

Still, the Buckeyes are one of the top teams to watch after having won a third straight Big Ten title. It's such a tough conference that most _ if not all _ Big Ten teams move on to the NCAAs each year. This year, all six Big Ten teams that compete in men's gymnastics advanced to State College.

Ohio State will take the floor in the first preliminary round session Thursday afternoon, along with Army, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Stanford. California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Temple and Penn State take their turns in the evening session.

The top three teams from each group advance to the finals Friday, when the individual all-around champion will also be crowned.

There's extra motivation for Ohio State in 2007. The Buckeyes last year were knocked out in the qualifying round, ending the school's 25-year streak of championship round appearances.

Any advice for his team this year?

``Yeah, I told them, 'Don't finish 4th,''' he joked.

Kidding aside, Avery said he has a healthy, rested group he believes can advance to the finals. The Buckeyes are led by senior Willie Ito, one of the nation's top pommel horse and high bar competitors, and junior DJ Bucher.

``We have to prepare a little more seriously for the qualifiers this year, because we want it to be another 25 years before we don't qualify again,'' Avery said.

Individual event champions will be crowned Saturday night.

Oklahoma is just as much an NCAA mainstay as Ohio State. Coach Mark Williams has led the Sooners to four NCAA team titles in the last five years.

After winning championships in 2002 and 2003, Oklahoma fell to second in 2004 before winning the last two years.

``Winning three in a row would be awful nice,'' Williams said, ``but we're going to have to earn it.''

Williams will have one of the country's top gymnasts in junior Jonathan Horton, who won the all-around title last year. Horton also won his second straight American Cup earlier this year after earning top scores on floor exercises and parallel bars.

``We kind of feel like we have a target on our back. Four out of the last five years we've won, and we realize that no teams want us to win anymore,'' Horton said. ``I think the team feels a lot of pressure, a lot of nerves going on, but that will just drive us to compete.''

Penn State is no pushover, having earned an NCAA-record 11 national titles, the last in 2004, when the Nittany Lions interrupted Oklahoma's dominating run.

The Lions are hosting the NCAAs for the first time since 1998, when the event was held at the Bryce Jordan Center, which normally hosts basketball.

This year's tourney will be played at Rec Hall, a smaller, older arena.

``It's great to have fans right on top of you, you put 3,000 or 4,000 people in this building,'' Penn State coach Randy Jepson said. ``We're talking about world-class gymnastics here this weekend.''

Senior Matt Cohen said being home won't be a distraction.

``We know what this crowd is like,'' said Cohen, a top competitor on the rings. ``We know what's it's like to compete at Rec Hall under pressure.''

Then there are teams like Army, which barely qualified for the 12th and final spot at the NCAAs.

The Black Knights are making their third NCAA appearance in four years.

``It was a lot of fun qualifying again this year,'' Army coach Doug Van Everen said. ``The pressure is on.''