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NCAA West Region preview: Xavier, Michigan look like teams to beat

Billy Kennedy and the Aggies have an intriguing first-round matchup. Getty Images

THE TOP 4 SEEDS

Xavier, North Carolina, Michigan, Gonzaga

WHO SHOULD WIN

Xavier

Last year Chris Mack’s Musketeers were able to turn an 11-seed into an Elite Eight run, and were able to carry over their postseason success into a strong early season start, opening the season 15-1. Xavier has a strong offensive core of Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura and Quentin Gooden, which led them to averaging 85 PPG this season. Their challenge will be on the defensive end, where they were exposed against Villanova and a hot-shooting Arizona State early in the season. 

IF NOT THEM

Michigan

What Xavier can do with their offense, Michigan can do with their defense. They gave up just 63.5 PPG this season and ranked fifth nationally in defensive efficiency. They are tough on the offensive end as well. Moe Wagner, Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman all averaged double-digit scoring this season. The Wolverines also protect the basketball, ranking sixth nationally in assist/turnover ratio. If everything is clicking, the Big Ten champions could be the first team from their conference to make a Final Four since Michigan lost the title game in 2013. 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Trevon Bluiett- Xavier

After sparking his team to a deep postseason run last year, Bluiett has continued to be one of the best players in the country. He has averaged 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game this season and has established himself as one of the best players in Xavier history. He is one of the few players in the country that can put a team on his back and will them to a Final Four. 

Moe Wagner- Michigan

Wagner is problematic for opposing defenses because he is so versatile on the offensive end. He is a 40% 3-point shooter, but is by no means a finesse big. Wagner is mean around the basket and averages 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The adjustments teams have to make to defend Wagner often open things up for the rest of the Michigan offense. 

Joel Berry- North Carolina

The Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 Final Four, Berry is looking to lead his team to back to back titles. Berry has more experience than arguably any player in the tournament, and has led the Heels to back-to-back Final Four appearances. He is averaging 17.1 points and 3.3 assists per game, and if Carolina has another deep run in them, it will be because Berry leads them to it.

BEST FIRST ROUND MATCHUP

Texas A&M vs. Providence

Talk about teams headed in opposite directions. The Friars battled their way to the Big East title game, and gave Villanova all they could handle before finally falling to the Wildcats. The Aggies, who are as talented as anyone in the country on paper, have underachieved all season. They fell victim to the magical run of Alabama’s Collin Sexton. The Aggies strong frontcourt of Robert Williams and Tyler Davis will be pushed by the combo of Alpha Diallo and Rodney Bullock. If the Aggies play to their potential, they should win here, but that has been the story of the season for Texas A&M. 

UPSET THREAT

San Diego State

The Aztecs, as usual, are powered by their defense. They are ranked 36th nationally in defensive efficiency, and do a great job of defending without fouling. San Diego State wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t blitzed through the Mountain West tournament, and have now run off nine straight wins. They have big wins this season, including a win over Gonzaga and two wins over Nevada. If Brian Dutcher’s squad isn’t fat and happy after making it to this point, they could give Houston all they want and more. 

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Kyle Tucker had a big day at the plate on Sunday. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games of the series, with one team or the other putting on a solid offensive performance in each, the Astros tried to win their fourth series in their last five by taking the rubber game on Sunday against the Blue Jays. Thanks in part to a big day from Kyle Tucker, who played a significant role in the early offense they used to power to the win, they would accomplish their mission.

Final Score: Astros 7, Blue Jays 4

Astros' Record: 18-16, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (2-1)

Losing Pitcher: Nate Pearson (0-1)

Kyle Tucker helps lead the offense to seven unanswered runs

Houston did not go easy on Nate Pearson in his 2021 debut. After a scoreless first, the Astros loaded the bases on two walks and a single, then brought the first run of the day home on an RBI walk by Michael Brantley. Another walk opened the door in the bottom of the third, and Kyle Tucker capitalized with an RBI triple to make it 2-0, followed by an RBI single by Robel Garcia to make it a three-run lead, ending Pearson's day one out into the bottom of the third.

Things didn't get easier for Toronto's pitching in the next inning, as Jose Altuve would lead off the bottom of the fourth with a solo homer. A single and a walk then set up another big hit for Kyle Tucker, a three-run dinger to make it seven unanswered runs and giving Tucker four RBI on the day.

Blue Jays pound Greinke in the fifth

After four shutout innings to start his day on the mound, working around a few hits along the way, Zack Greinke tried to cash in on his team's offense to get another win on his record. He wouldn't be able to get it done, though, as Toronto would get after him in the top of the fifth. They would score four times amongst five batters that came to the plate, with a solo homer by Rowdy Tellez, a two-RBI double by Bo Bichette, and an RBI single by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

That made it a 7-4 game, and with Greinke still not having recorded an out in the frame, Dusty Baker would lift him at 88 pitches in favor of Bryan Abreu, who would get a pop out and a double play to end the inning and keep the lead at three runs. Greinke's final line: 4.0 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 88 P.

Houston takes the series

No more runs would come on either side the rest of the way, with Kent Emanuel working around a single for a scoreless sixth, Ryne Stanek getting a 1-2-3 seventh, and Andre Scrubb doing the same in the eighth to set up Ryan Pressly for the save. Pressly would get the job done, sending the Blue Jays down in order, including two strikeouts to wrap up the win and giving Houston the series victory.

Up Next: The Astros will stay at home to continue this homestand, welcoming in the Angels for three games starting Monday at 7:10 PM Central. The opener will feature a pitching matchup of Alex Cobb (1-2, 5.48 ERA) for Los Angeles and Luis Garcia (0-3, 3.28 ERA) for Houston.

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