If you’re a real college basketball fan, you will know Kihei Clark from his insane game-saving, high-IQ play in the 2019 Elite Eight. Clark collected a long rebound and fired a half court dime to assist on a game-tying buzzer beater. Virginia went on to take down Purdue in overtime and win their first ever national championship two games later. But Clark was not a one-hit wonder, and he followed up a solid freshman campaign with a far better sophomore season, and he slots in at #4 in our top returning ACC guard countdown.
Clark ranked third in the ACC with 5.9 assists per game last season, and on a low-scoring Virginia squad, he was second on the team with 10.8 points per game. Another sneakily impressive statistic is his 4.2 rebounds per game. Not only is that mark quite solid for a guard, but Clark is 5’9, yet he still collects his lion’s share of boards. With UVA’s top scorer and top two rebounders graduating, Clark will be the key to the Cavaliers’ offense in 2020-21.
Clark’s gritty style of play was on display from Game 1 this season, as in an ugly season-opening 48-34 win over Syracuse, Clark dropped ten points and grabbed 11 rebounds while playing the whole game. The California product was a consistent playmaker for Virginia all year, and he elevated his game in certain big situations, posting a 13 point, 8 rebound, 7 assist slash line in a road overtime win at Wake Forest, a team that slaughtered Duke. In a visit to #5 Louisville, Clark poured in 23 points on the Cardinals, to go with five rebounds and seven assists. When Virginia ended the abbreviated season on a 8-game winning streak, it coincided with Clark’s most consistent stretches of the season, as he averaged 12 points a game with efforts of 17, 17, and 18 points while continuing to be a defensive stalwart for the stingy Cavaliers. It’s hard to quantify the impact that Clark has on each basketball game, but his clutch factor is undeniable, and his numbers are quickly improving. If he makes similar strides in his junior season, Clark will be even better than this #4 ranking in this countdown. Watch out for Kihei Clark in 2020.
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.
The ACC Coastal division, as it has been for several years, is both the little brother of the ACC and completely wide open. The division has sent all seven of its teams to the conference title game in the past seven years, although none of them have emerged a winner. That trend figures to continue, as the winner of this division will have an uphill battle against Clemson, assuming the Tigers hold serve in the Atlantic Division. However, this should make the regular season highly interesting, as no team is truly incapable of making a run within the division. A key part of each team’s ability to make such a run will hinge on their quarterbacks, so let’s take a look at the rankings for the ACC Coastal signal-callers.
7. Chris Katrenick, Red-shirt Junior, Duke
Katrenick was a true backup in 2019 behind senior Quentin Harris, who started all 12 games for the Blue Devils. The former three-star recruit is a 6’3 red-shirt Junior from Algonquin, Illinois. He is just 8 for 25 passing in his collegiate career and is not in the best situation to succeed in Durham. Duke was 114th in total offense in 2019 and just 5-7 on the year. The sample size is very small for Katrenick, but with a lack of experience and not much offensive talent around him, it might be an uphill battle in 2020.
6. Brennan Armstrong, Red-shirt Sophmore, Virginia
Another guy who spent last season servicing as a backup. Unlike Katrenick, Armstrong is getting put into a good situation, as the Cavaliers spent most of 2019 ranked inside the top 25 and played in the ACC championship game. The former three-star is a 6’2 southpaw from Shelby, Ohio, and he looks to pick up right where last season’s starter Bryce Perkins left off. Perkins threw for 3538 yards in 2019, breaking the school’s passing record. Armstrong showed promise in his limited action in 2019 completing 15 of 20 passes for 196 yards. He could succeed in 2020 but he finds himself at #6 on the list largely due to his lack of experience.
5.James Graham, Red-shirt Sophmore, Georgia Tech
Graham and the rest of the Yellow Jackets really struggled in their first season away from Paul Johnson and the triple option. In his red-shirt freshman season, Graham was the main guy under center in Atlanta. He came to Tech as a four-star commit out of Fitzgerald Georgia with big upside as a dual-threat QB. After a red-shirt year, he only completed 45% of his 193 passing attempts in 2019. He finished second on the team in rushing with 290 yards. Graham will look to make a jump in his second full year under center for the Jackets.
4. Hendon Hooker, Red-shirt Junior, Virginia Tech
After injuries left starting QB Ryan Willis sidelined, Hooker was forced into action in his red-shirt sophomore year making eight starts for the Hokies. At 6’4” the former four-star for Greensboro, North Carolina, is a very dangerous dual-threat quarterback who was second on the team in rushing a season ago with 520 yards. Hooker is also a very accurate thrower who completed 61% of his passes while only getting picked off twice. Coming into the season as the starter, Hooker is set up for success with more control of the offense on a team that is favored to win the ACC Coastal.
3. Kenny Pickett, Senior Pittsburgh
It took us all the way to number three on our list to find a guy who has not taken a red-shirt season in his college career. In his true junior season, Pickett’s number took a massive jump, turning himself into one of the top passers in the conference. Pickett went from averaging 140 yards per game passing in 2018 to nearly 260 yards per contest in 2019. He was a three star-recruit coming out of Oakhurst, New Jersey, and tossed for nearly 3,100 yards in 2019, the fourth-most in the ACC. If Pickett’s numbers continue to raise he could be a late-round steal in the 2021 draft.
2.D’Eriq King, Red-shirt, Senior, Miami
Don’t look now, but the U has a quarterback. King said enough with the University of Huston just four games into the 2019 season and decided to red-shirt to keep a year of eligibility, before choosing Miami in January. He is a very dangerous dual-threat QB who rushed for 674 yards in 2018 to go along with 2,982 passing yards. He accounted for 50, yes 50, Cougars’ touchdowns in 2018, the most in a single season in school history, and he also sat out the last 2 1/2 games with an injury. If King can put up anywhere near the production for his historic 2018 season, the Hurricanes will get what the so desperately crave: national relevancy
1. Sam Howell, Sophomore, North Carolina
Sam Howell had one of the best true freshman seasons in the history of college football in 2019. He was second in the ACC in passing with 3,641 yards, and he set the FBS freshman record as well as the UNC school record with 38 passing touchdowns. He was the 2019 ACC Rookie of the Year and took the Tar Heels from two wins in 2018 to seven wins in 2019, punctuated by a 55-13 beatdown of Temple in the Military Bowl. The sky is the limit for Howell in 2020, as the sophomore will look to build off of his incredible first-year campaign.
The Setup The 2016 NCAA basketball tournament had been somewhat standard outside of the Midwest Region that saw Syracuse and Virginia clash in an Elite Eight match-up. Most people could have predicted Virginia being at that stage, and the Cavaliers had gotten there with few issues, an eight-point win in the Round of 32 their closest call. Virginia was the top-seed in the region, but prior to the first round, they weren’t necessarily the fan favorite to get to the Final Four, as Michigan State, the second seed, was a popular national champion pick among brackets. That all changed when the Spartans were stunned by 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee in the Round of 64, leading to absolute chaos on the bottom half of the bracket. Syracuse was the biggest beneficiary as, after beating seventh-seeded Dayton, they got to face Middle Tennessee in the second round. They won by 25 points, heading to the Sweet 16, where they received excellent luck again. Rather than third-seeded Utah awaiting the Orange, they met #11 Gonzaga, who had stunned the Utes by 23 points. Syracuse escaped the Bulldogs, 63-60, and moved on to create a very unlikely Elite Eight contest against the Cavaliers.
How it went down Virginia was the higher ranked team, but they hadn’t been in the Elite Eight since 1995. In that time span, Syracuse had reached that stage four times, including going to the Final Four in 2014 and winning a national championship in 2003. Whether it would be Virginia’s talent or Syracuse’s magic and pedigree that mattered was yet to be seen. However, the opening minutes were slow, as nerves showed for both teams. At the first media timeout, four minutes into the game, Syracuse led just 4-2. Both teams awoke, but it was UVA who truly roared to life, as the Cavaliers accelerated past the Orange with a 19-2 run that covered 8 minutes and 8 seconds of clock time. That set the tone, and Virginia’s suffocating defense allowed them to take a comfortable 35-21 lead into the break. UVA allowed Syracuse to creep within single digits to start the half, but the Cavaliers quickly re-asserted themselves. With 9:33 showing on the clock, ACC player of the year Malcolm Brogdon drove and kicked it out to London Perrantes. Perrantes buried a three and Virginia took a commanding 54-39 lead. But that’s where things got interesting, as Syracuse started to figure out Virginia’s defense. The Orange scored on their next five trips down the floor, but Virginia did manage a pair of layups to keep Syracuse at bay, 58-49. However, Syracuse then really made their move. Malachi Richardson got free at the top of key and he drained a three to make it a six-point game. As UVA pushed down the court, Richardson swiped at the ball and it began to sail out of bounds, but the freshman leapt out of bounds and turned to ricochet the ball off Brogdon to make it Syracuse ball. Tyler Lydon buried another triple on the ensuing possession and it was 58-55. Two layups later, and the Orange had an unlikely lead. Richardson extended it with another three. When all was said and done, it was a stunning 25-4 run for Syracuse that turned a 15-point deficit into a 64-58 lead with 3:27 to play. Virginia’s slow-moving offense got back within 64-62 with 26 seconds to play, but that was as close as they would get. After a Syracuse free throw, the Cavaliers missed a game-tying three. The Orange went 3-4 from the charity stripe in the final 15 seconds to ice the 68-62 upset win.
The Aftermath Syracuse’s Cinderella story struck midnight in the Final Four, as they were manhandled by North Carolina. Two years later, the Orange made another surprising run, roaring into the Sweet 16 as an 11-seed before losing to Duke. Meanwhile, Virginia’s fall was the start of a bottoming out that would then lead to their first national title. They lost in the Round of 32 in 2017, and then they became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed, getting routed by twenty points by UMBC. The Cavaliers rebounded and, due to this year’s cancellation, are still the defending champions after winning it all in 2019.
NBA Notables Syracuse – NONE Virginia – Malcolm Brogdon (Bucks, Pacers)
March Madness got itself started early this year, with yet another crazy weekend shaking up the rankings and wetting our appetite for postseason play to get going. Some mid-major tournaments start this week, but a majority of playoff basketball starts next week. While we anxiously await the commencement of the postseason, here are a few takeaways from last weekend.
Don’t sleep on the defending national champions
Hit hard by the draft, Virginia has struggled to live up to the hype of a defending national champion, spending most of the season unranked. Although they are looking to grab a #4 seed in the ACC Tournament, they have been a clear tier below the top trio of Florida State, Louisville, and Duke. At one point 12-6 overall and 4-4 in conference play, however, the Cavaliers have embarked on a 9-1 stretch, and they are currently on a 6-game win streak. In that stretch, Virginia took down Florida State and then Duke this past Saturday. Five of their past six wins have been low-scoring, one-possession victories, bringing about how sustainable their success is, but after last year’s run fueled by tight defensive victories, I wouldn’t be sleeping on the Cavaliers in March.
Big 10 is Big Average
The Big 10 may get 10+ teams into the NCAA Tournament, but don’t be expecting too much from any of their representatives. For a while, the Big 10 looked like a highly competitive conference in which every team had a chance, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they simply don’t have an elite team. Maryland is probably the closest, with a 23-6 record, but they struggle to win on the road and just got manhandled by Michigan State on their home court. Only two teams in the conference have winning records away from home, with six teams having three or less wins. Good teams win away from home, elite teams do it consistently, and the Big 10 hasn’t shown that they are capable of doing so.
Clemson should be in the NCAA Tournament discussion
Granted, Clemson has one of the weirdest resumes in college basketball, with some bad losses, but they do boast three Top-10 wins over Duke, Florida State, and Louisville. Given their propensity for upsets, Clemson would be a very fun team to watch in March, and given the high quality of their wins, they should absolutely be considered for the NCAA Tournament, and the fact that very few projections even have them on the bubble is insane.
I don’t think there’s been much shift at the top in the ACC – I still view Louisville, Duke, and Florida State as the three favorites, but there were some performances that merited a second look as teams jockey for conference tournament position and potentially a spot in the NCAA field come March.
Biggest Risers: Syracuse, NC State After initially listing Virginia as a dark-horse candidate, I believe the Wolfpack became the ‘best of the rest’ in the ACC outside the aforementioned top 3. This past week, they ended Clemson’s surprising hot streak and edged Virginia on the road. I also think Syracuse made a statement this week – in my eyes, the Orange definitely put themselves squarely in consideration for an at-large bid come March. I still don’t see them contending for an ACC title, but they had some really gutsy wins that have them riding a four-game winning streak. They beat Virginia Tech on the road, and then they proved they could win without Buddy Boeheim, beating the Irish on the road 84-82. It was an impressive performance from a team that had lost to Notre Dame at home just two weeks earlier.
Biggest Fallers: Virginia, Notre Dame Both of these squads played victim to the risers this week. The defending national champions started conference play 3-0 and had me thinking this could be a team that would make another deep run, but they’ve lost four of five, including at home to the Wolfpack and the Orange. Their trademark defense keeps them in games, but this team has lost a lot of offensive firepower, and while they’ll likely make the tournament, I’m highly doubting they make a run. The Irish’s quest to reclaim some respect in the ACC took another hit with their home loss to Syracuse. They are 2-5 in ACC play, with the last four of those losses coming by a combined 11 points. With a star in John Mooney, the Irish are staying competitive, but they lack the finishing touch of a perennial winner, and that may plague them if they can’t figure it out soon.
QUICK HITS The ACC is still one of the best conferences, if not the best conference, in America, and they are loaded with Final Four contenders at the top of the standings. I see the ACC putting 8 teams in the tournament, and my prediction is that those teams will be Duke, Louisville, Florida State, NC State, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Virginia, and Notre Dame. Right outside the picture, I have Clemson and Pittsburgh. I’m declaring 4 ACC teams dead in the NCAA Tournament picture, and those teams are UNC, Miami, Wake Forest, and Boston College.
Biggest Upcoming Games Notre Dame @ #5 Florida State Pittsburgh @ Syracuse Clemson @ #6 Louisville