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A.J. Hoffman: With win over Cincinnati, UH may be headed for the NCAA Tournament

Rob Gray might be playing in the NCAA Tournament. UHcougars.com

Nothing is official until March 11, the day the committee looks over all the resumes and picks a field of the 68 teams they deem most deserving, but the Houston Cougars basketball team may have locked up an NCAA tournament bid on Thursday night. The Cougars beat the 5th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats 67-62, giving them their first win over a top 5 team in the AP poll since 1996 (No. 3 Memphis). The win marked their 20th of the season, and barring a major collapse, Kelvin Sampson is poised to take the Coogs to their first tournament since 2010. 

While their resume doesn’t hold a ton of wins over other tournament teams, beating Cincinnati, who hadn’t lost since early December is a massive feather in the cap of the Cougars. As it stands today, the Cougars have five wins over teams that sit in the top 40 in RPI. Those wins are Temple (39), Providence (34), Arkansas (33), Wichita State (19) and Cincinnati (9). The bad news is, zero of those wins have come on the road. The committee wants to see that teams are capable of winning in hostile environments, and to date the best road win Houston has is a four-point win at UCF (59th in RPI). 

The good news is Houston gets a chance to get a solid road win on Sunday at Temple (39th in RPI). As important as the win tonight was, a win over Temple could be even bigger. The AAC appears to be a three-bid league, barring a conference tourney surprise. As of today, Houston would be the third team in from the conference. The closest team to catching them for that final spot is Temple, who started conference play in disastrous fashion, but have bounced back in recent weeks. Temple’s strength, at least in the eyes of the selection committee, will be non-conference wins over Auburn and Clemson, who are currently projected as 2-3 seeds. While I don’t believe a loss would be a dealbreaker, Houston winning there would put more space between them and their closest pursuer, as well as adding a strong road win to their record. 

Beyond the Temple game, Houston has 4 games left, all against teams who currently sport a losing record in the American Conference. If they take care of business in those games, and win a game or two in the conference tournament, the Cougars could end up packing their dancing shoes, and looking at potentially a 9-11 seed. That would give them a legitimate shot at the program’s first tournament win since a guy named Olajuwon led the Cougars to a 49-47 win over Olden Polynice, Rick Carlisle and the Virginia Cavaliers in the Final Four of the 1984 season.

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Jose Urquidy is a surprising choice to start Game 2. Photo by Getty Images.

After a long and tumultuous season, the Houston Astros made it to their 3rd World Series in five years and will take on the Atlanta Braves Tuesday night.

Houston had the better overall regular season record, so games 1 & 2 will be played at Minute Maid Park while games 3-5 will be held at Truist Park in Atlanta.

(If necessary, the final two contests will be played back at Minute Maid Park).

The Braves got this far by defeating the Milwaukee Brewers in the ALDS 3-1 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games (4-2).

Atlanta prevailed with timely hitting from guys like Joc Pederson, Austin Riley and Eddie Rosario performing like an MVP this postseason.

The Braves received solid pitching outings from guys like Ian Anderson, Max Fried and former Astro Charlie Morton.

Atlanta used clutch hitting and solid pitching to make to their first World Series since 1999.

Meanwhile, the Astros made it back to the World Series by defeating the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS 3-1 and out-slugged the Red Sox four games to two.

According to Fox Bet, the Astros are favored at -154 to win the World Series. This is certainly an obtainable goal for Houston's team as they have the experience, hitting and pitching to compete with anyone.

Can Houston's bats stay hot?

The most intriguing matchup this series will be the Astros' bats facing off against this Braves pitching staff. On paper, Houston's lineup seems to be favored for their depth. Jose Altuve at the top of the batting order is always a threat to get on base, and behind him are a plethora of hitters who can drive in multiple runs.

The two best bats this postseason thus far for the Astros are ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez (.522 batting average) and this year's American League batting title champion Yuli Gurriel (.455 batting average). The Cuban natives have lit up pitching and will look to continue their torrid hitting in the World Series.

Other Astros who could be impactful at the plate against the Braves include Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. All three of their batting average's in the .200's respectfully and could come up big at any time.

This lineup is so deep, Atlanta's pitchers won't receive many breaks, if at all this series.

Will the pitching step up again?

Losing Lance McCullers Jr. for the World Series certainly isn't ideal, but not impossible to overcome as proven in the ALCS against the Red Sox.

Framber Valdez pitched the best game of his career when he threw 8 innings and surrendered only one run in Game 3, while Luis Garcia had his best start of the postseason and received the Game 6 win. Both of these pitchers have stepped up in McCullers' absence and will have a huge impact on the series. Valdez is set to start Game 1 on Tuesday night.

If Jose Urquidy and Zack Greinke can also pitch deeper into games, there will be less stress on the bullpen and give the Astros a better chance to stay in games. And we won't have to wait long to see Urquidy, as he will start Game 2, according to Astros manager Dusty Baker.

In an ideal scenario, the Astros' starting pitchers should throw six innings of work and let Kendall Graveman, Ryne Stanek and Ryan Pressly closeout games as they have all season.

Of course this is the best-case scenario, which doesn't always happen, but other arms can be used to bridge the gaps that include Phil Maton, Yimi Garcia in short relief outings and Cristian Javier and Jake Odorizzi can pitch multiple innings if needed.

Even if a starter has a clunker of a start, this bullpen has done a great job of keeping things close and setting up the Astros for success.

Will this be Carlos Correa's "Last Dance" with Astros?

One can only imagine what is going on in Carlos Correa's mind right now. No one is implying that the free agent to be will not be focused this series, but it's hard to fathom this upcoming offseason isn't a distraction right now.

The 27-year-old shortstop is set to receive multiple offers from different teams and land one of the richest contracts once this season concludes.

If this truly is his final season with the Astros, why not go out on top and win one more title before moving on?

Let's hope this "Last Dance" for Correa is a slow one, so we can all enjoy it a little longer.

Will Dusty's experience prove to be a difference-maker?

Dusty Baker's experience could be beneficial for Houston's chances of hoisting another trophy as he has managed teams in parts of 24 seasons.

He's the only skipper to ever lead five franchises to the postseason and obtain more than 2,000 career victories.

This is the second time he as taken a club to the World Series. He took the 2002 San Francisco Giants to the Fall Classic but lost to the Angels in seven games.

It's safe to assume the 72-year-old seems eager to win his first championship as a manager to cap off a Hall of Fame career.

Final projection

As previously mentioned, the Astros are favored to win this series. If Houston can continue to stay hot at the plate, receive solid outings from their pitchers and just play Astros baseball, there is a good chance this city will have yet another Commissioner's Trophy in their display case.

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