Confidential Bubble Watch: March 2, 2015

Can you believe it?  Two weeks from today, we will be doing our brackets.  The question, of course, is how many ACC teams will be on those particular brackets.

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Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

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In case you didn’t know, the gentleman above is named Chris Jones. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  If not and you claim to be a Louisville Basketball fan, then you’ve either been hiding beneath a boulder for the past week or vacationing at the North Pole.  Regardless of your familiarity, the soap opera surrounding the talented yet tumultuous senior point guard finally reached it’s final episode this past Sunday, less than 24 hours removed from a much needed home win over Miami.  And this episode of As The Jones Turns would not have a warm, fuzzy ending.  Consequently, the chances of a sequel or spin off are as likely as me playing in the NBA next year.  No more coming back, no more second chances, no more Oscar nominated flops, no more clutch jumpers……end of story, roll the credits.

Ironically, Jones would play well in his final game wearing a Cardinal uniform, tallying 17 points and igniting a UofL offense that up until the start of the 2nd half had stunk worse than a 3 week old dead opossum roadside in July.  On the periphery, everything seemed in place: Jones was back on the team, back on the floor and back to helping Louisville win basketball games.

And then………

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Upon first hearing the news about Jones’ final dismissal from the team on Sunday afternoon, most UofL fans, myself included, were like……

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But after the initial shock set in, confusion slowly turned to aggravation and angst for Card fans (or perhaps I only speak for myself).

How does a kid who was just reinstated following a suspension manage to get booted off the team again so swiftly?  But the more important question for some is why has UofL had so many discipline issues in previous years – all issues that ultimately kept critical players off the floor? Finger pointing and excuses are meaningless when it comes to trying to resolve that issue, yet it still leaves even the average Louisville fan searching for answers and grasping for straws. Look no further than the likes of Derrick Caracter, Carlos Hurt, Chane Behanan and now Chris Jones to best illustrate the “what could have been” storyline for other Louisville basketball teams.  Perhaps a separate blog should be crafted to discuss what I personally find to be some of the key issues contributing to the occasional off the court disarray.  But for starters, here’s one…

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So in closing, Chris Jones now takes his next step in life.  As a fan, I am disappointed and borderline perturbed.  As a human, I am saddened and concerned.  Although short lived, Jones’ time at UofL will probably be remembered in both good and bad terms.  Was Jones a fan favorite, a lovable icon, or a Peyton Siva’esque figure that fans adored?  Louisville supporters both young and old would plausibly say “No”.  On the flip side, was CJ a tenacious defender, someone who played his tail off, and a player that single-handedly lifted the Cards to a few wins earlier this season (insert Wake Forest)?  Undoubtedly yes.  I wish Chris Jones a better, brighter future as I hope other UofL faithful will as well.  There is no need to take jabs and second guess his actions.  Besides, who are we to judge?

Life without Jones won’t be easy, especially for this particular UofL squad.  Want proof?  It came in the form of an epic struggle on the road at Georgia Tech last night.  A struggle that somehow resulted in a win so ugly that my eyes are still hurting from watching.  More about the ‘Tech/Ville game tomorrow, I’m calling it a day and hoping that more good news as opposed to bad await this group of Cards.

L’s Up

Disaster Avoided

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After a week when Mother Nature decided to wreak havoc on the residents in the Kentucky area, it only made sense when a group of Hurricanes dropped into downtown Louisville and the Yum Center yesterday afternoon looking to cause major damage. This particular storm came in the shape of a Miami men’s basketball team that sat firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble entering Saturday’s slugfest. Miami, a team that decidedly beat Duke on their home floor earlier in the season, entered yesterday as a team that was hungry, looking for something to eradicate. And, for 20 minutes Rick Pitino’s squad looked like the ideal victim – ripe for the picking.

Louisville’s first half display of basketball on Saturday afternoon was one of the ugliest performances in many moons – a highlight reel for viewers who enjoy poor shot selection, selfish one on one play and bad energy. The only thing that saved Louisville yesterday from being severely battered and washed away was a mandatory storm shelter – halftime.

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So fifteen minutes came and went, and out from behind the clouds and wreckage sprang a second half Louisville team that showcased energy, teamwork and positive vibes. After opening the second half on a quick 8-0 spurt, the Cards had risen from the ashes and enabled themselves to strap on enough seat belts to endure a half of basketball that looked far more like the old school Big East brand of hoops than the present day ACC…..bodies on the floor, players banging on every trip down the lane, each shot being highly contested.  And in the spirit of not reviewing each single possession from yesterday, I’ll cut to the chase…..the game literally went to the buzzer when Angel Rodriguez’s last second game winning 3pt attempt blew to the right and UofL fans went from…..

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To…….

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…..in a matter of seconds.

Montrezl Harrell played huge for UofL (sound familiar?) particularly in the paint and most surprisingly from the free throw line where he hit 3 of 4 attempts inside a minute of regulation to help the Cards avoid losing their 4th out of their last 5 contests. Chris Jones found his way off local milk cartons and the missing person’s campaign to also play a major role in the win with his energy and timely offense down the stretch.  Terry Rozier had an off night and struggled from the field but his bucket inside the final two minutes and his deflection just inside a minute were irreplaceable.  All that to say: Cards 55, Canes 53.

But hold up, wait a minute……it’s worth noting that oddly enough, arguably the biggest story from yesterday’s game was not the fact that UofL managed to rip victory from the jaws of defeat, but instead how Montrezl Harrell looked like Peyton Manning (or insert your favorite QB) when accurately drilling Miami’s Tonye Jekiri square in the forehead on an overhead pass after coming down with the ball following a 1st half defensive rebound.  Enter a new American conspiracy that shall be labeled “Head Gate”

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I won’t cast opinions either way, good or bad, just to say that the play itself was as strange as any in-game one I have seen in a couple years.  And to add to the awkward story line of whether Harrell did or did not intentionally pong Jekiri, Miami Coach Jim Larranaga reportedly informed the three game officials following the incident that Jekiri had suffered a concussion as a result of the play and would not return.  Yet, he made his way back to the court early in the second half and played the rest of the way…..Miami must have one helluva team physician.

Up next for the Cards is a road tilt at current ACC bottom feeder Georgia Tech. But despite the Yellowjackets’ current league standing the Cards will absolutely have to show up in Atlanta with a sense of urgency and a desire to play team-oriented basketball for 40, not 20 minutes.  The ACC doesn’t offer any nights off, a lesson Louisville must continue to grasp and carry well into March.

Wayne’s World

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Call me fan-crazed or accuse of me having OCD, but I can still remember the day that I heard Wayne Blackshear had verbally committed to play basketball at the University of Louisville.

“Scha-wing!”

“Party time, Excellent!”

“Party On Wayne!”

Ok, for the sake of being truthful none of those famous movie quotes sprang from my mouth.  Instead, I can recall texting a few buddies of mine, all die hard UofL fans like myself, in doing my part to spread the good word.  Rick Pitino had landed a future McDonald’s All-American, the toast of high school hoops in Chicago, and a future Illinois Mr. Basketball winner.  To put it mildly, Wayne Blackshear could have been at that time (and may still be) the most decorated recruit Pitino has landed during his tenure at UofL.

So, with all the hype comes all the pressure.  You finish high school, you move away from home and you end up in a city that loves college basketball as much as only a few others could claim only to sustain a potential season ending shoulder injury before the season started.  This was Wayne Blackshear’s life four years ago.  And since that time, his playing days at UofL have had more ups and downs than The Beast at King’s Island.  His career would drive a sports psychologist crazy.  Even as I type this blog and reflect, I find myself stopping and scratching my head wondering who Wayne Blackshear really is, how good he truly can be at the game of basketball, and what on Earth the next month of basketball will look like for him., I will attempt to break down Wayne’s playing days at UofL into three areas…..

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THE GOOD

– After having only scored 37 points during an injury ridden freshmen season, Wayne Blackshear is only 97 points shy of scoring 1,000 (a measuring stick for many former Louisville players) for his career.  Don’t believe me?  Look it up.

– Blackshear was a key cog to not only one, but two Louisville teams that played in the Final Four – the most memorable being the 2013 National Champion squad

– Off the court he has personified what Louisville fans ask of beloved players: to be humble, professional and to stay out of trouble.

– By the end of his playing career at UofL, no former individual player will have been a part of more team wins

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THE BAD

- Blackshear, throughout his career at UofL, has been placed on more milk cartons than any player in the 21st century for his disappearing acts in big games

– At a critical moment in last year’s Regional Semi-final game against Kentucky failed to hit the front end of two free throws that would have tied the game inside a minute left to play

– Despite being a senior, Wayne has clearly been unable to connect with many of his under classmen teammates the past few years.  It doesn’t take long from a viewing standpoint to see that players don’t look to him for leadership

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THE UGLY

– Blackshear is coming off a game against Syracuse where his stat line after 19 minutes read as follows:  0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, and 5 fouls.  He was so disinterested he looked like me in Algebra class.  Louisville, in the biggest way, needed Wayne to play a major role against the Orangemen after the loss of fellow senior Chris Jones.  Unfortunately, Wayne did not deliver – a result that Cardinal fans have grown overly accustomed to.

It’s hard to imagine a kid like Blackshear, who beat out former UK star Anthony Davis 4 years ago for the coveted Mr. Basketball award in Illinois, turning the corner before it’s too late.  Coach Pitino would disagree as he has continuously praised Blackshear for his practice performances of late and is convinced that Wayne will have a “big March.”  Card fans like myself sure hope so, but are not holding our breath.

And in conclusion this may come as a shock, but I really like Wayne Blackshear.  In fact, I think the primary reason I, and other fans, have been so disappointed at times is because we see a great kid, a model student athlete with a big smile and a lot of untapped talent. It’s still not too late for Wayne, as March is still a week away. Will it happen?  Will he get out of his own way, relax, and just play?

Time will tell, but there ain’t much left…..

Keepin’ Up with the Jones’

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The soap opera that is Louisville Men’s Basketball took on a new episode over the past 48 hours that will certainly leave it’s mark as one of the great head scratchers of all-time.  Less than 24 hours before a road game at ACC rival Syracuse, Head Coach Rick Pitino informed the local media that senior Chris Jones (3rd on the team in scoring/1st in assists/1st in Grammy award-winning flops) was suspended indefinitely and would not play against the Orangemen. Louisville, a team that already labored to put points on the board at times, suddenly became uber vulnerable on Wednesday night with the lose of Jones.  Losing senior leadership always hurts, especially when an alarmingly inexperienced bench (as in this case UofL’s) had at one point gone 2 1/2 games without producing a single point.  Ultimately Jones sat, and Louisville suffered it’s second straight conference loss – a loss that looked to be avoided following a solid first half effort and the play of Montrezl Harrell and homegrown kid Quentin Snider, who played admirably in his first career start at UofL with 13 points and some timely treys.

A quick note regarding Snider: can you imagine the adrenaline rush of having your head coach come to you and inform you that you’d be starting your first ever collegiate game in the next 24 hours, without any prior notice or having been an integral part of first team walkthroughs and knowing that Jim Boehiem’s world reknown match up zone would be waiting for you?

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Yeah, me neither……….

In the end, the actual game last night took an ever so familiar flow: the Cards play a solid 20 minutes, then in the second half find a lid on the basket the size of a Mason jar opening.  Futile offense, untimely turnovers and the inability to keep Syracuse out of the lane and off the charity stripe lead to the ultimate demise.  Coach Pitino harped that he was overly satisfied with the Cards’ play and grit, noting that the NC State loss was far more disappointing to him and his staff.  Then, after answering a few predictable questions pertaining to the suspension of Chris Jones, Pitino did something he rarely does and I, as a life long UofL fan, cannot recall him doing since the fond days of Derrick Caracter and Brandon Bender………….he called out a single player, in this instance rarely used but potential capped freshman Shaqquan Aaron, and stated that the primary reason that Aaron never left the bench Wednesday night was due to him not being a “Louisville Man”.  One could probably scoff at such a statement and/or insert any number of jokes revolving around past instances that tested the time of social morality.  Yet, my initial reaction as a vested fan was two fold…………

1. What could Aaron, a seemingly quiet reserved kid from Seattle, have done to deserve such ridicule?

2. Why does it seem that every year UofL basketball suffers an off the court non-basketball related hiccup that disrupts team momentum, divides the fan base and creates potential road blocks for season ending success?

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I would venture to say that most will never really know what Aaron could have done or failed to do to draw Pitino’s ire last night.  Then again, I’m not sure it matters……..unless of course Aaron transfers because of it – at which that point I would consider throwing my iPhone through my living room tv screen.  Bottom line: it is too late in the season for this, spare me as a fan.

Up next for the Cards, Miami in the Yum! Center.  This game could almost be labeled a must win for UofL, if for no other reason to remove the stink in the air.  Oh, and since I began constructing the first half draft of this blog entry, it has been announced that Chris Jones “might” play on Saturday against the Hurricanes and decline a trip to Belgium.  Did someone mention soap opera?

Pull it together Cards, these guys did….

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No more exCUSEes

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No more finger pointing. No more second guessing.  No more excuses…..

It’s now mid-February, that time of the year when college basketball teams have developed their identities, acknowledged their weaknesses and vowed to ride their strengths as far as they will allow.  Louisville could do itself a huge favor by looking itself in the mirror asap and accepting who they are.

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So who, if anyone or anything, is this Louisville team? Personally, I find them to be a team that lacks reliable depth, a team that collectively shoots on a 7th grade level most nights, and lastly, a team that needs to capitalize fully on what it does have – two future NBA draft picks.  And of those two, no player in the country arguably means more to his team than Montrezl Harrell does to UofL. One should reference the PITT game a week ago to better understand such a statement. Similarly, look at how UofL struggled with in-state rival WKU without having Harrell available in the second half back in December.

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Bottom line: Harrell has to be an INTEGRAL part of everything UofL does the rest of season, most importantly on offense.  As a fan I cannot imagine UofL going 2 or 3 consecutive trips down the floor without “Trez” at least getting a touch or two.  Yet, I have watched games this season when Louisville failed to get Harrell a touch for 10-11 trips.  Case in point: the NC State game last Saturday.  And we all know how that turned out.

In conclusion, feed the beast. Run everything through Harrell on offense.  At worst, it could open up lanes and space for Terry Rozier, Chris Jones & company.  And with a road game against Big East rival Syracuse now only a day away, it would be a huge step toward the self realization process in acknowledging their lack of inside presence at the 5 spot.  Coach Rick Pitino spoke recently about taking players out of the game if they don’t pass it to Harrell when clearly open – about time IMO.  Pitino also stated that he planned to give freshman center Anas Mahmoud more immediate playing time starting on Tuesday night, another move I personally am in favor of.  If Anas’ presence is felt and UofL is a better team because of it in weeks to come, then prepare oneself for the “Egyptian Prescription” references til at least season’s end.

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Here’s to hoping for a bounce back performance by the Cards on Wed night.  Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying this Kentucky weather til tip-off……

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ACC Baseball Preview 2015

As the weather gets warmer (well, for most of the ACC), spring comes and with spring comes baseball. America’s pastime is alive and well in the ACC as last season saw 6 teams go to the NCAA tournament. The addition of Louisville makes an already competitive league ever tougher. Here’s a quick overview of some of the storylines for ACC baseball.

(Pre-season rankings according to Baseball America)

Boston College

2014 Record: 22-33 (10-20)

Postseason: N/A

Player to Watch: OF Chris Shaw

The Eagles have never really been known as a baseball school. In fact, their baseball field is actually a fenced off corner of a soccer field. The team is usually towards the bottom of the ACC standings. This year looks like it may be the same, but there is a twist. That twist is outfielder Chris Shaw. The outfielder had a tremendous 2014 during which he led the league in home runs and was named All-ACC. Baseball is by no means an individual game, but if BC can get their star some support, it could be a different year.

#24 Clemson

2014 Record: 36-25 (15-14)

Postseason: Lost @ Nashville Regional

Player to Watch: OF Steven Duggar

Clemson opens the season ranked 24th according to Baseball America and for good reason. They return most of their core from last year and have brought in some solid recruits. Steven Duggar was All-ACC last year, but he’s not the only star. Aside from him, the Tigers have two elite left handed pitchers in Zack Erwin and Alex Bostic. On the other end of the battery is sophomore Chis Okey who batted .286 in his freshman year.  On the surface, Clemson has the pieces it takes to get to Omaha. You can be sure that the loss in regionals last year will drive this team to work for a better result this year.

Duke

2014 Record: 33-25 (16-14)

Postseason: Lost @ ACC Tournament

Player to Watch: RHP Michael Matuella

One of the more intriguing teams from 2014 was Duke. Armed with a 2nd year head coach and lots of veterans, the Blue Devils won 30 games for only the 10th time in program history and the first time since 2009. Now is when the rubber meets the road for coach Chris Pollard. The team is now mostly his players and many will play key roles for Duke this year. Even though the team lost much of their offense last year, they return most of their pitching talent. Junior Michael Matuella is a pre-season All-American and Baseball America even named him the top draft prospect in the ACC. Behind him is senior Andrew Istler who is known for his versatility. He will start the season as the no. 2 starter, but don’t be surprised to see him come out of the bullpen especially in key games.

#21 Florida State

2014 Record: 43-17 (21-9)

Postseason: Lost @ Tallahassee Regional

Player to Watch: OF DJ Stewart

There’s no question this year as to who the Seminoles will turn to as their star. DJ Stewart hopes to repeat as the ACC player of the year. The junior garnered just about every award last year and will return this season to do it once more. Aside from Stewart, a veteran heavy rotation is led by junior Mike Compton and senior Bryant Holtmann. The Seminoles suffered a disappointing loss at their own regional last season suffering losses to Georgia Southern and Alabama. That was certainly not the outcome they hoped for and will be hungry for more this season.

Georgia Tech

2014 Record: 37-27 (14-16)

Postseason: Lost @ Oxford Regional

Player to Watch: DH AJ Murray

After an improbable run to the ACC title last season, the Yellow Jackets return with most of their core looking to repeat. AJ Murray leads an offense that tends to be a little all-or-nothing. At times, they can easily score 10 or more runs. Other times, they are apt to being shut out. On the other side, Georgia Tech relied on the strength of their bullpen last year. This year should see the reverse since their star relievers graduated. The team now finds strength in their starters. If the Jackets’ hitting can find some consistency this year, they have the pieces in place to make a run for the title again.

#12 Louisville

2014 Record: 50-17 (19-5 in AAC)

Postseason: Lost in CWS (went undefeated through Regionals and Supers)

Player to Watch: RHP Kyle Funkhouser

If you thought adding Louisville to the conference would just boost basketball, you clearly haven’t seen the Cardinals play baseball. The team went undefeated in their own regional and super regional only to fall in the College World Series to eventual champion Vanderbilt. Junior returns Kyle Funkhouser and will be one of the top draft prospects this year as he leads the veteran heavy team. With much of the team returning this season, there’s no reason to think the Cardinals won’t return to Omaha for the 3rd straight year.

#9 Miami

2014 Record: 44-19 (24-6)

Postseason: Lost @ Coral Gables Regional final

Player to Watch: C Zack Collins

Many teams in the nation would have loved to have Miami’s last season. They were the top seed in the ACC tourney, and even though they didn’t win, they still hosted their own regional. It took a double elimination final but Texas Tech outlasted the Hurricanes to advance to the next round. By most standards, this wasn’t a bad season at all. With the talent they had though, many felt they could have done more. This year, the Hurricanes are back and ready to do just that. The team is anchored by a number of All-Americans including ace Andrew Suarez, one of the conference’s top pitchers. But the star of the team is sophomore catcher Zack Collins. After an amazing freshman season where he hit almost .300 with 11 home runs, Collins will try to continue his legacy at Miami. With expectations even higher than last year, anything short of a CWS berth may be seen as a disappointment. With the talent here though, there’s no reason to expect the Hurricanes won’t find themselves in Omaha.

#17 North Carolina

2014 Record: 35-27 (15-15)

Postseason: Lost @ Gainesville Regional

Player to Watch: OF Skye Bolt

After the 2013 season saw both UNC and NC State meet in the CWS, fans of both teams anxiously awaited 2014. Unfortunately for them, both teams failed to meet expectations as their only meeting was the ACC play-in game. North Carolina came out on the better end as they won the play-in and squeaked into the Gainesville regional. This year, with many of the same players returning, UNC once again hopes to live up to the lofty expectations. Skye Bolt and Landon Lassiter anchor a solid lineup and Trent Thornton leads an elite rotation. Not much has changed for the Tar Heels and hopefully that means they can build off last year’s disappointment and get back to to the College World Series.

NC State

2014 Record: 32-23 (13-17)

Postseason: Lost ACC play-in game

Player to Watch: C Andrew Knizner

As previously mentioned, the Wolfpack had a disappointing season a year ago. Expectations were sky high and with 2 first round draft picks, everything indicated that the Wolfpack would have a memorable year. Sadly, the supporting cast underperformed and the stars even faltered a bit at times. It was a year that many would like to forget. Now starts a new year for NC State and with it, a fresh start. After losing 7 draft picks, the team will look to its youth this year. Andrew Knizner shifts from 3B to catcher and will likely be the team’s top hitter. Knizner should get some help from veteran outfielder Jake Fincher, but there are still quite a few holes to fill. Most likely, 2015 will be a rebuilding year for the Wolfpack, but they may not be too far out of contention.

Notre Dame

2014 Record: 22-31 (9-21)

Postseason: N/A

Player to Watch: 2B Cavan Biggio

The Irish didn’t get the warm welcome they were hoping for last season. Their first year in the conference saw them finish tied for last place. With nowhere to go but up, Notre Dame turns to their star player with his star legacy: Cavan Biggio. The son of MLB great Craig Biggio, Cavan led the team last year in several categories as a freshman. As he returns for his second year, Biggio looks for consistency, something he struggled with last year. Also of note is the late addition of Tori Hunter Jr, a wide receiver on the football team. Hunter Jr. hasn’t played baseball since high school and while dual sport athletes aren’t unusual, it’s interesting seeing an addition to the team so late. Also the son of a Major Leaguer, Hunter Jr. will get a chance to show off his athleticism on the diamond this year.

Pittsburgh

2014 Record: 22-30 (11-19)

Postseason: N/A

Player to Watch: OF Boo Vazquez

Pitt was another team that had a rude awakening in their first season of ACC. They pulled a few upset victories, but overall were not good enough for the ACC tournament. This year, the Panthers hope to improve from last year and make the tourney. With a top 50 recruiting class, Pittsburgh could very easily find themselves in the tournament especially if senior Boo Vazquez has a year like the last one. He was the leading power hitter for the Panthers and even had a 10 game hitting streak last year. Though it may be a few years off, Pittsburgh appears to be a team that’s on its way up.

#4 Virginia

2014 Record: 53-16 (22-8)

Postseason: Lost in CWS final

Player to Watch: LHP Nathan Kirby

The Cavaliers enjoyed a special year that was a few outs away from being even more. In the 3 game College World Series final, Virginia outscored Vanderbilt 17-14 but lost 2 games by a single run. It was a tough way to end a season that was one to remember. Even though they lost a few stars to the draft, the Cavaliers return a majority of the players from their Omaha run. Most notably, Nathan Kirby is a lefty who throws around 92mph. Add in his junk pitches, and you can easily see how Kirby no-hit Pittsburgh last year. With several more names popping up on draft boards everywhere, Virginia looks like a strong candidate to win the ACC and more this year.

Virginia Tech

2014 Record: 21-31-1 (9-21)

Postseason: N/A

Player to Watch: OF Saige Jenco

2014 was tough year for Virginia Tech baseball. They finished tied for last place in the conference winning only 9 conference games. After losing some key seniors, the Hokies look to rebuild under 2nd year coach Patrick Mason. Saige Jenco is only a sophomore this year and will attempt to lead the young team back to their former glory. Jenco will probably bat lead off as to create some runs which were hard to come by last season. Things will not get better overnight, but this is a team that could become a conference power in a few years.

Wake Forest

2014 Record: 30-26 (15-15)

Postseason: Lost ACC play-in game

Player to Watch: 3B/RHP Will Craig

After a few years at the bottom of the conference, Wake Forest returned to the ACC tournament in 2014 yet suffered a quick exit. A 5-3 loss to eventual champion Georgia Tech killed the Deacons’ national tournament hopes. With their star freshmen returning, expect to see them back in the hunt this year. Nate Mondou found his spot at 2B last year and delivered several clutch at bats. On the other side of the diamond, Will Craig became the starting 3B and was also used on the mound where he made 7 appearances. While he hopefully won’t have to take the mound this year, Craig along with Mondou show the talent to take the Demon Deacons back to the NCAA tournament.

Overall, it’s shaping up to be a exciting baseball season in the ACC. Each week, I will be posting updates on the ACC baseball season so stay tuned to The Confidential for all the ACC baseball news.