TOURNAMENT TIME

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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Houston can win series on Sunday

Timely hitting helps Astros edge out D-backs to even series

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Astros had two losses over the last 24 hours; one a game against the Diamondbacks in the series opener on Friday night, the other the news that their recovering ace, Justin Verlander, announced Saturday afternoon that he is opting to undergo Tommy John surgery. The decision and surgery will likely sideline Verlander through 2021 when his current contract with Houston ends.

With that, the Astros headwinds continued to increase, meaning a win to even the series with Arizona on Saturday would be a much-needed pick-me-up. Here's how they did:

Final Score: Astros 3, Diamondbacks 2.

Record: 26-26, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Enoli Paredes (3-2, 2.84 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Luke Weaver (1-8, 6.51 ERA).

D-backs score two on Javier who is pulled early

Kole Calhoun, who drove in four runs, including a home run in Friday's game, would start the scoring on Saturday with a solo home run off of Cristian Javier in the top of the second, giving Arizona an early 1-0 lead. Javier allowed another run in the top of the third, giving up a leadoff single that would move to third on a groundout then score on a sac fly, doubling the lead to 2-0.

Javier finished the third and tossed a 1-2-3 fourth, but whether it be due to a pre-determined pitch count or other situation, he would not go any further, ending his night there on just 77 pitches. His final line: 4.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 77 P.

Astros grab a lead in the sixth

The Astros were able to cut the lead in half in the bottom of the third, getting a leadoff single by Josh Reddick, who would move to third after a walk and fielder's choice before scoring on an RBI-groundout by Jose Altuve, making it 2-1. Enoli Paredes was first out of Houston's bullpen, taking over for Javier in the top of the fifth and retiring six straight batters for two perfect frames.

Houston would get to Luke Weaver in the bottom of the sixth, getting a leadoff single by George Springer, who would score from first on an RBI-double by Altuve to tie the game. Altuve would come around as the go-ahead run later in the inning on an RBI-single by Kyle Tucker, knocking Weaver out of the game as the Astros took their first lead of the game, 3-2.

Houston evens the series and moves back up to .500

Josh James was the next reliever for Houston in the top of the seventh, and despite getting into a jam by issuing a one-out walk and hitting the next batter, he was able to get out of it. It was thanks to a great play by Michael Brantley, who started a double play by catching a lineout and throwing a runner out at second to end the inning.

Brooks Raley had the eighth and erased a one-out walk by retiring the next two batters to maintain the one-run lead. After a scoreless bottom of the eighth, the Astros turned to closer Ryan Pressly to get another save and finish the one-run game. Pressly would do so, as Houston would move back up to .500 and even the series 1-1 heading into the rubber game on Sunday.

Up Next: The finale of this series between Houston and Arizona, and Houston's last regular-season home game of 2020, will get underway at 1:10 PM Central on Sunday. Madison Bumgarner (0-4, 8.53) ERA will be on the mound for the D-backs, while Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.70 ERA) will start for the Astros.

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