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. 

Ed Oliver skips bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. Houston Cougar Football Facebook

The regular season is over for Houston football, but a lot has occurred since last week. Let’s take a look at what to expect for UH:

The Armed Forces Bowl

Houston (8-4, 5-3 in AAC) will face Army (9-2) at Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas on Dec. 22. The Black Knights are ranked No. 22 in the Top 25 AP Poll, mostly due to their prolific triple option rushing attack which ranks third in the nation. They are on a seven game winning streak since losing to Oklahoma. The Big 12 Conference Champion struggled at home against Army, but would later win in overtime. Army averages 300 yards per game on the ground this year, making them the third team (Navy, Memphis, Army) that Houston will face that is ranked within the top five in rushing. The matchup is not good for a depleted Houston defense. The Black Knights will play Navy this weekend, a conference foe of the Cougars who has had a terrible season. Army vs Navy will be the only college football game this weekend, where you can get a sneak peak of what to expect if you haven’t seen the Black Knights play all season. Plus, the uniforms for this game are always pretty cool.

King vs Milton

Houston comes into this bowl game with their heads hung low after what most consider to be a disappointing season. Injuries, most notably those to D’Eriq King and Ed Oliver, sidetracked the Cougars from heading into the AAC Championship game after Memphis blew them out in Week 13. King and UCF QB McKenzie Milton were both nominated for AAC Offensive Player of the Year, of which Milton took home for a second straight season. Milton humbly gave King an honorable mention by saying, “Shout out to D’Eriq King who is just as, if not, more deserving of this honor. Promise we’ll both be back better than ever!” King played only 11 games, where he reached 50 total touchdowns, 14 of which came from the ground, threw for 2,982 passing yards, and rushed for 674 yards.

Ed Oliver Denies Bowl Game

The All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver decided to sit out his final bowl game to begin preparing for the NFL draft. He announced his decision via twitter where he thanked the University of Houston, the coaching staff, and his teammates. He finished by saying, “To all the fans, thank you for your relentless support. Forever I will be a Coog!” Oliver’s decision came about a week after he publicly announced that he will be playing in whatever bowl UH was assigned, even after he had to be benched for tweaking his knee in Week 13 vs Memphis. He missed four games this season after suffering from an uncalled chop block against Navy. In his three years in Houston, Oliver accounted for 193 total total tackles, 54 of which were tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, 14 passes defended, six forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and one blocked kick. He was the first underclassmen to win the Outland Trophy in 2017, which is awarded to the best college interior lineman. This season, Oliver won AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Coaching Changes/Extensions

Houston still doesn’t have a defensive coordinator. Mark D’Onofrio was fired after the Memphis game for managing one of the worst defenses in college football, and also one of the worst defenses in the history of the program. The UH defense allowed a total of 412 points, being the fifth most allowed points in a season in school history, while also allowing 5,862 total yards. It seems like Houston is in no rush in finding a replacement.

Kendal Briles accepted a contract extension from UH after interviewing with Texas State for the head coaching job vacancy. He was also widely considered for a SEC offensive coordinator position of which was not disclosed by sources. The new three-year deal is worth $2.1 million, making Briles one of the highest paid assistants in the nation. Offensive line coach Randy Clements also enjoyed a new three-year extension. Consider both a package deal. The Houston offense averaged 46.4 points per game, rushed for 2991 yards, and passed for 3611 yards, making it one of the best offenses in the nation.

AAC Bowl Matchups

Armed Forces Bowl- Houston vs Army

Military Bowl- Cincinnati vs Virginia Tech

Gasparilla Bowl- USF vs Marshall

Birmingham Bowl- Memphis vs Wake Forest

Independence Bowl- Temple vs Duke

Cure Bowl- Tulane vs Louisiana Lafayette

Most Notable AAC Bowl Matchup

Fiesta Bowl- UCF vs LSU

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