Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #3 – Chris Smith, UCLA

We’ve hit the #3 slot in our top returning Pac-12 guards countdown, and after two straight Oregon guards to kick off our rankings, we head away from Eugene and down to sunny Los Angeles for our third feature. Coming in at #3 in this Pac-12 countdown is Chris Smith of UCLA, who averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on 46% shooting from the field. For Smith, a change in coaching proved crucial in sparking his breakout collegiate campaign, as he was hardly on the Pac-12 radar, let alone in a national spotlight after two relatively nondescript seasons.. However, as the Bruins rapidly improved under first-year head Mick Cronin, so did Smith, who led the Pac-12 runner-ups in scoring, while earning a first-team all conference selection and the Pac-12 Most Improved Player award. Smith declared for the NBA draft this past spring, but he did not hire an agent and maintains his eligibility if he decides to return. This ranking at #3 is working under the assumption that Smith comes back for his senior season. Currently ranked the 65th best available prospect in the draft, Smith appears to be a fringe selection if he stays with the draft. Staying for a final season with Cronin could see his stock shoot up towards first-round value. 

After averaging under 20 minutes per game in both his freshman and sophomore years, Smith became the go-to-guy in the UCLA offense this past season. Averaging 28.3 minutes on the court per game, Smith improved his shooting from 40 to 46% and from 28% to 34% from beyond the arc, allowing him to post more consistent performances throughout the season. Smith put up solid numbers out of the gate, but UCLA faced a watered-down non-confernece schedule that featured just one ranked opponent, so his improved efforts were hardly considered a major headline at the time. However, he truly broke out in the Pac-12 opener at Washington, as he dropped 17 points on the Huskies, while ripping down 12 rebounds and dishing out five assists, giving the Bruins a critical road win to start their conference season. He did all his damage inside the arc, shooting 8-12 from 2-point range. He followed that performance up with a 22-point torching of Washington State and another double-double against USC, who finished 3rd in the Pac-12. 

Smith’s early domination of the Pac-12 was certainly a nod to his marked improvement in his junior season, but it wasn’t until January 30, with UCLA sitting at 3-4 in conference play and welcoming #20 Colorado onto their court, that Smith delivered his signature effort of the year. In a critical game for the Bruins, the Chicago product shot 8-11 from two-point range and cooly sank 13 of 15 free throws en route to a 30-point effort, which he complemented with nine rebounds and three steals. UCLA won the game, 72-68, and proceeded to rip off a 9-1 run in their next ten games to rise near the top of the Pac-12 standings. 

Smith continued to torch the Pac-12, racking up another double-double against Washington State and shooting a combined 7-13 from three-point range in key road victories against Arizona and Colorado, helping UCLA earn a #2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. The cancellation of the conference tournament and March Madness deprived basketball fans of the Pac-12’s newest star shine in the postseason, but should Smith come back for his senior season, he should be making headlines as one of the best in the business, both in the Pac-12 and in the country.

Best College World Series Stories of the 2010s

The College World Series at a magical time in the baseball season – as the major league season hits the dog days of June and July, the best collegiate talent gathers in Omaha, Nebraska for a double elimination tournament that has produced some classic moments. However, with the coronavirus pandemic cancelling this past CWS, it gave me time to reflect on some of the best stories from Omaha over the past decade. Here are my top 5 inspiring CWS runs from the 2010s. 

#5.  2013 UCLA

UCLA wasn’t necessarily a massive underdog to reach Omaha, as they were a top-20 team in the nation and a top seed in their region entering the NCAA Tournament. After breezing through the Los Angeles regional with a 3-0 record, the Bruins surprised fifth-ranked Cal State Fullerton, a titan in the college baseball world, sweeping the favorites in a two-game Super Regional on the road. At 44-17, the Bruins entered the College World Series with the worst record among the eight teams, with no CWS titles to their name and just a 4-9 overall record in Omaha. 

However, UCLA continued to breeze through the field – you would have hardly known they were the 6h seed in the event. Facing traditional powerhouse and 57-win LSU in the opener, UCLA won 2-1, and they matched that score against NC State to reach the semifinals. There, they had two chances to take down the #1 team in the nation in UNC, but the Bruins needed just one. Their pitching continued to dominate, as UCLA won 4-1. In the best-of-three championship series, UCLA got a somewhat welcome surprise as Mississippi State, the 7th seed in Omaha, emerged as their challenger for the championship. The Bruins eked out a 3-1 victory in the opener, and they sealed their dominant championship run with an 8-0 victory in the championship, giving up just four runs in five CWS games. 

UCLA’s pitching staff was led by tournament MVP Adam Plutko, who’s Game 1 gem (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R) gave the Bruins the jump in the championship series. 

#4. 2010 TCU
The Horned Frogs are one of two teams on this list that didn’t win the title, but their run to the College World Series semifinals in their first ever appearance was still inspiring enough to land them at #4. TCU played the 2010 season in the Mountain West Conference, so although they put together 51-win regular season, the Horned Frogs entered the NCAA Tournament ranked just 15th in the country. They cruised through their regional on their homefield, but they found themselves in a battle versus #2 Texas in the Super Regional. After winning a 3-1 opener, TCU was clubbed 14-1 in Game 2, seemingly shifting all the momentum to the Longhorns in the winner-takes-all battle. However, TCU rebounded and stunned their in-state rival with a 4-1 victory that got them to Omaha for the first time in program history. 

TCU found themselves facing Florida State, who was making their 20th appearance in the College World Series, second most in the field. The Horned Frogs didn’t blink, dismantling the Seminoles 8-1. After a setback to #6 UCLA, TCU proved their victory over FSU was no fluke, beating the tradition-laden program 11-7 in an elimination contest. 

TCU reached the semifinals and gave the sixth-ranked Bruins a big scare, winning the first game 6-2 to set up a winners-take-all clash with a championship series berth on the line. Despite their ultimate defeat in the semifinals, TCU’s season was regarded as a highly successful one and an extremely unexpected run given their lack of history and mid-major conference. Head Coach Jim Schlossengale was named the national head coach of the year. 

#3. 2019 Michigan

The 2019 Wolverines are the other team not to win a title that makes our list. Michigan entered the season with no College World Series appearances since 1984, and their last title coming in 1962. Not only that, but the Big 10 themselves were in the midst of a ridiculous cold streak in college baseball – since Michigan’s 1984 appearance only Indiana in 2013 had reached Omaha. The Wolverines didn’t look like the class of the conference for most of the season, and they didn’t win the Big 10 championship, but they slipped into the NCAA Tournament as a three-seed in their regional. However, once in the tournament, the Wolverines turned up the heat. 

Michigan smacked Creighton and Cincinnati to quickly reach their regional final. After suffering a setback to the Blue Jays, Michigan rebounded to beat Creighton for a second time and earn a date with the #1 team in the nation in UCLA. The entire three-game Super Regional was must-see baseball, with the Wolverines clawing out a 3-2 victory in Game 1, before succumbing 5-4 in extra innings of Game 2. The series came to Game 3, and Michigan wasn’t about to waste their deep tournament run, as they edged out the Bruins 4-2 in the elimination game, earning their first CWS berth in 35 years. 

Michigan was understandably a huge underdog in Omaha, as, with the exception of Auburn (1997), every team had been to the College World Series this decade. Five of the top-8 teams had survived this far, so Michigan didn’t have a cushy schedule by any means. However, the Wolverines were rolling, and they weren’t slowing down, beating Texas Tech and Florida State to reach the semifinals. They matched up with the Red Raiders once more, absolutely dismantling the boys from Lubbock, 15-3, to reach the championship. 

Michigan didn’t quite bring the Big 10 to glory, but they came extremely close against SEC powerhouse Vanderbilt. Michigan beat the Commodores, ranked second in the country, 7-4 in the opener, but they couldn’t quite get over the hump, losing the series in three games. Despite the final result, Michigan’s resurgence put the Big 10 back on the map and was one of the best stories of the decade. They were led by Tommy Henry on the mound, and Jimmy Kerr (1B), middle infielders Ako Thomas and Jack Blomgren, and outfielder Jesse Franklin, all of whom made the all-tournament team. 

#2. 2015 Virginia

If not for the #1 team on this list, Virginia may have been the most unlikely champion of the decade. The Cavaliers had finished as the CWS runner-up in 2014, but their 2015 season had been an absolute roller coaster, as UVA went 15-15 in ACC play, and with just 39 wins in the season, they held their breath on selection day, getting into the tournament as a 3-seed in their region. However, the Cavaliers cruised, with a 3-0 record to reach the Super Regionals, where they faced and swept a fellow three-seed in Maryland. 

The Cavaliers entered the College World Series faced with a daunting field including #2 LSU, #4 Florida, #5 Miami, and #7 TCU. Virginia got unranked Arkansas in the first round and escaped with a 5-3 win, before slipping past the Gators in a 1-0 shutout to reach the semifinals. There, they matched up with Florida once more, needing one win with two opportunities to do so. They needed both, losing 10-5 in their first effort. The Cavaliers scraped through to the championship round on the strength of a 5-4 upset of Florida, earning UVA a title-series rematch with Vanderbilt. 

The championship series looked bad for the Cavaliers, who appeared overmatched in a 5-1 Game 1 loss. However, buoyed by an elite start from Josh Sborz, Virginia bounced back with a 3-0 shutout victory in Game 2, and they closed out the Commodores in Game 3, 4-2 to cap off one of the most unlikely championship runs in recent college baseball history. 

#1. 2016 Coastal Carolina

This was the obvious choice, as even though Coastal Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament as a higher seed than Virginia, the Chanticleers had zero history in the College World Series and as a member of the Big South, they weren’t taken seriously as a title contender by most major media outlets. However, the Chanticleers beat #9 NC State in two of three contests throughout their regional to reach a Super Regional against #8 LSU. There, the Big South representatives swept the Tigers to reach Omaha for the first time in school history. 

The Chanticleers earned a stunning victory to start their College World Series journey, toppling the top-ranked Florida Gators 2-1. That win alone may have been enough to call their debut journey to Omaha a success, and it looked like that would be the high point when they were smacked by TCU 6-1 in their next contest. However, Coastal rallied to edge #5 Texas Tech 7-5, followed by a pair of victories over the Horned Frogs to reach the championship against an unseeded but heavily favored Arizona team. The Wildcats blanked Coastal 3-0 in the first game, but the Chanticleers responded with a 5-4 victory in Game 2. In the deciding battle, Coastal turned to Andrew Beckwith, the national leader in wins, who had already pitched two complete games in Omaha. He didn’t go the distance in Game 3, but his 5 ⅔ innings were enough to keep Arizona at bay. The Chanticleers built a 4-0 lead in the sixth inning and staved off the Wildcats just enough for a 4-3 title-clinching victory. An absurd and unprecedented run by the Chanticleers that was the no doubt choice for the #1 slot here.

Daily Headlines: McClung Transfers, Arizona Lands Twin International Recruits

The biggest name on the NCAA basketball transfer market made his decision on Wednesday, as former Georgetown star Mac McClung announced his intent to transfer to Texas Tech, the 2019 NCAA runner-ups. It’s a huge pick-up for the Red Raiders, who have lost a few of their top options, including Davide Moretti, who left collegiate ball for pro ball in Italy. McClung became a viral star in high school, and he tore it up with the Hoyas for two seasons before declaring for the draft, while maintaining eligibility. However, McClung recently withdrew his name from draft consideration, and Texas Tech immediately became a favorite to land his services. The Red Raiders are known for their fierce defensive system, but McClung’s fireworks offensively will be a welcome sight in Lubbock, where Chris Beard hopes to compete with Kansas and Baylor for Big 12 supremacy.

Arizona lands twin brother recruits
Arizona basketball received some big-time upgrades via their international recruiting, as they landed twin brothers Azuolas and Tautvilas Tubelis out of Lithuania. Azuolas led Lithuania in scoring in the U16 and U18 European championships, and he is the top-rated international prospect. Tautvilas spent four seasons playing for the elite Vilnius Basketball School, while also competing at the FIBA U16 and U18 European championships. They both cited Arizona’s campus and fans as reason for their commitment. The Wildcats were strong contenders in a wide-open Pac-12 last season, but they lost seven of eight players who got major playing time. They’ll hope these victories on the recruiting front keep them in conference contention.

Johnny Juzang gets immediate eligibility

UCLA got some welcome news as well for their basketball team, as transfer Johnny Juzang got approved to play immediately for the Bruins, after transferring from Kentucky. Juzang was originally a Class of 2020 recruit, but he re-classified and played 28 games for Kentucky, starting two. His numbers (2.9 points per game) didn’t dazzle, but he also didn’t see much playing time until the back-end of the year, and he put up a few impressive performances, including 10 points in a comeback effort versus Florida, as well as thirteen points against Tennessee. The 6’6 shooting guard hails from Los Angeles, and he’s headed back to his home state to play for the Bruins, where he will be an intriguing option for a team that finished second place in the Pac-12 last season, finishing the year as one of the hottest teams in the country.

Houston’s Fabian White out for the season

Houston lost a key contributor for the upcoming season, as senior Fabian White suffered a torn ACL while working out on his own, forcing him to take a red-shirt for 2020-2021 season to preserve his eligibility. It’s really bad luck for White, who started all 31 games in his junior campaign, and for Houston, ranked nineteenth in the country in ESPN’s way-too-early Top 25, they’ll need to replace one of their best players if they want to be contenders for the NCAA Tournament.

Daily Headlines: UCLA wins a big Pac-12 recruiting battle

2021 athlete Devin Kirkwood announced his commitment to UCLA, as the Bruins became a late favorite in his recruitment, keeping the California product in-state over what Arizona State, previously considered Kirkwood’s desired destination. Kirkwood is an extremely talented player with spectacular versatility that will be a great fit in UCLA’s system. Although Kirkwood doesn’t have a position listed, he’s a great defensive asset, and he projects to eventually slot into UCLA’s secondary with superb physicality. His recruitment was largely a battle of Pac-12 schools, although a few Ivy League squads, Notre Dame, and Michigan were also interested in his services. 

NC State lands a 4-star QB

Pro-style quarterback Aaron McLaughlin decommitted from Auburn this past winter, and the NC State Wolfpack took full advantage, recruiting McLaughlin consistently. They were rewarded with McClaughlin’s commitment, one that he says “feels different” from when he committed to Auburn, a decision that the Georgia product made while he was still on campus. Since then, McLaughlin feels he has matured, and his decision to commit to the Wolfpack was made at home. Last year, NC State had three alumni as starting signal-callers in the NFL, and their success in pumping out NFL QBs was most definitely a factor in McLaughlin’s commitment. He’ll be headed to the ACC, where he will try to boost NC State to the top of the conference.

 Taulia commits to Maryland
Making the headlines late yesterday evening was the decision of Taulia Tagovailoa to transfer to Maryand. A year ago, the Terrapins just missed out on Jalen Hurts, who ended up heading to Oklahoma, but this time they managed to land the high-profile Alabama transfer, as they’ll take Tagovailoa, and hope he can bring them back to Big 10 relevancy. The Terrapins looked to be a strong team to start 2019, but they quickly faded, and hopefully some consistency at the quarterback position can help their case.

Daily Headlines: Scheduling implications of Cal schools moving online

The hopes for a semi-normal college football season took a huge blow, as the Cal public school system announced they would be moving online for the fall semester of the 2020-2021 academic year. The announcement was met with general disagreement and shock, as, while no one wants to downplay the severity of the pandemic, it seems ridiculously early to make this decision. The majority of schools don’t even begin classes for another three months, as some universities are still finishing up finals of this past school year.

To make a massive decision like this, knowing how unpopular it is with their students, the sports world, and pretty much everyone else, is pretty shocking. This virus is completely new to everyone, with most projections and models having been fairly inaccurate to this point. The pandemic has been going on for just about two months in America now, so to make this call three months ahead of time seems absurd. 

On another note, that decision will greatly affect college football, and all of the fall college sports season. Without Cal, UCLA, and all the other public Cal schools competing at the D1 level, on campus, it seems unlikely their sports teams will be able to compete. The Pac-12 is greatly affected by this, which in turn leaves a lot of question marks about the fate of football this fall. 

Conference opponents discussing potential home-and-home series in 2020
One potential solution to the dilemma already posed by the Cal announcement, and potentially to be posed by other schools, is to allow teams to play each other twice in a season. This would allow the Pac-12 to continue to function with some level of normality, even if Cal and UCLA are unable to play. Rather than shut down the league, if the other teams are able to compete, they’ll just play other conference opponents more than once. This could be a common move in a lot of major conferences, if certain teams are unable to compete. I can think of worse things than having to watch LSU vs. Alabama twice. This will, evidently, affect the College Football Playoff race, as a possible one-time expansion may be possible, or a two-loss Playoff team due to the increased conference contests.

This Day in March Madness History: UCLA’s Huge Comeback Stuns Gonzaga

This Day in March Madness History

March 23, 2006
UCLA vs. Gonzaga

  • The Setup
    When UCLA and Gonzaga met in a Sweet 16 matchup, it was an anticipated matchup between the 2 and 3-seeds in the Oakland region. UCLA was coming off their first 30-win season since their 1995 national championship run, and as the 2-seed in their region, they had high hopes for their postseason aspirations in 2006. To get past Gonzaga, the Bruins would need to get rid of their Sweet 16 demons, as they had lost their prior four appearances in the regional semifinal.
    Meanwhile, Gonzaga was back in the NCAA Tournament for an eigth consecutive year, but for the first time since 2000, the Bulldogs had escaped the opening weekend and moved on to the Sweet 16. Against UCLA, they hoped to march on to their first Elite Eight since their Cinderella run in 1999. 
  • How it went down
    Throughout the first half, it looked like it would be another Sweet 16 dud from UCLA, as the Bruins failed to hit a field goal for the first 8 minutes and 43 seconds of game time. Although they scraped together seven free throws in that time, their five turnovers and 0-7 start from the field allowed the Bulldogs to carve out an 18-7 lead. It didn’t get much better from there, as UCLA didn’t get closer than nine points during the half, twice trailing by 17 points, including with 58 seconds left in the half, as Gonzaga’s Derek Raivio drilled a three. UCLA scratched out the last four points to close the gap to 13 points, but it was an uninspiring half at best.
    UCLA did well to close the gap at the beginning of the half, polishing off a 15-4 run that spanned both halves to draw within six points at 46-40. However, Adam Morrison came in clutch, knocking down a triple and free throw to push the lead back to ten. With 3:26 remaining in the game, Morrison got a pair of shots from the charity stripe to fall, and Gonzaga led 71-62, with a berth in the Elite Eight almost inevitable.
    UCLA didn’t exactly fire on all cylinders down the stretch, but they made a few shots, and that was more than Gonzaga could say. Luc Richard Mbah hit a pair of threes and then a layup, bringing the Bruins within 71-66 and causing Gonzaga to take a timeout with 1:48 to go. On their ensuing possession, the Bulldogs got two shots off and missed them both, including a layup. Two offensive possessions later, UCLA got a jumper to fall to bring the deficit to three points, the first time they were within a possession since trailing 5-2.
    With 20 seconds to play, UCLA drained two more free throws, narrowing the deficit to a single point. They put on the full-court press and got a steal, which led to an easy layup for Mbah and a 72-71 lead. A UCLA steal and free throw extended the lead to two points. Gonzaga’s full court pass connected, but their attempt at a game-tying jumper did not. When it was all over, Gonzaga missed their last eight field goal attempts, not making a shot from the field in the final 5:13, allowing UCLA to end the game on a 14-2 run, including the last eleven points, and bring home the victory.
  • The Aftermath
    UCLA’s stunning victory brought them to the Elite Eight, where they upset top-seeded Memphis, 50-45, to advance to the Final Four. They took down LSU in the semifinals, but the Bruins could not finish the job, finally succumbing to Florida in the national championship. It was the first of three consecutive Final Four appearances, but UCLA never was able to grasp the championship trophy. They haven’t been past the Sweet 16 since 2008.
    Gonzaga’s struggles to get past the Sweet 16 continued far past 2006. The Bulldogs were bounced in the opening weekend of 7 of their next 8 tournament appearances, before they finally cracked the code in 2015, reaching the Elite Eight. 
  • NBA Notables (Teams they played 100+ games with)
    Gonzaga –  Adam Morrison (Hornets)
    UCLA – Luc Mbah-A-Moute (Bucks, Clippers), Ryan Hollins (Clippers, Hornets), Jordan Farmar (Lakers, Nets), Darren Collison (Pacer, Spurs)