Ranking the four most likely potential first-round NCAA tournament upsets

Picking upsets in this year’s NCAA tournament is difficult if only because some of the most dangerous double-digit seeds received nightmare draws.

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Fast-paced, ultra-disruptive UNC Wilmington drew a Virginia team adept at slowing games down and taking care of the ball. Slashing, guard-heavy East Tennessee State runs into a Florida team with an array of big, strong defensive-minded wings. And slow-but-ultra-efficient Vermont isn’t the type of athletic team that typically gives Purdue problems.

There are a few spots on the bracket where underdogs have better opportunities to pull off an opening-round surprise. Here are four teams seeded 11th or higher that have a strong chance to advance to at least the round of 32:

1. No. 12 Middle Tennessee (30-4) over No. 5 Minnesota (24-9)

One year after Middle Tennessee stunned Michigan State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, a more accomplished Blue Raiders team will try to again leave its mark on March. They arrive in Milwaukee brimming with confidence after a 30-win season that included victories over Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, UNC Wilmington and Belmont. Dynamic guard Giddy Potts and standout forward Reggie Upshaw are again two of Middle Tennessee’s top players, but the arrival of high-flying 6-foot-8 Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams has elevated the Blue Raders to a level not even last season’s team could reach. That trio possesses high-major-caliber athleticism and accounts for 63.5 percent of Middle Tennessee’s scoring and 54.4 percent of its rebounding. What may ultimately determine whether Middle Tennessee can topple a second straight Big Ten team is if it can take care of the ball against Minnesota’s ball pressure and score at the rim despite the Gophers’ size and length in the paint. The Blue Raiders are among the most two-point-reliant teams in the country, but Minnesota is exceptional defending the rim thanks to Reggie Lynch’s ability to alter shots in the paint. Ken Pomeroy’s odds of an upset: 45 percent

2. No. 11 Rhode Island (24-9) over No. 6 Creighton (25-9)

Single-elimination basketball won’t be anything new for a Rhode Island team that has been in must-win mode for a month now. Fighting to stay in at-large contention after a damaging loss to Fordham, the Rams reeled off eight straight wins to end the season and left no doubt by capturing the Atlantic 10’s auto bid. Drawing Creighton is a break for Rhode Island because the Bluejays aren’t the same team as they were the first half of the season before Maurice Watson, the nation’s assists leader, tore an ACL. Marcus Foster is an elite scoring wing, Justin Patton is an emerging NBA prospect at center and Khyri Thomas has blossomed, but Creighton doesn’t really have anyone adept at creating shots for others. Where this game will likely be determined is when Creighton is on offense. Rhode Island has been adept at taking away the 3-point shot without giving up easy looks at the rim because of the shot blocking presence of Hassan Martin. Will that strategy be effective against a slightly higher caliber of team? Ken Pomeroy’s odds of an upset: 40 percent

3. No. 12 Nevada (28-6) vs. No. 5 Iowa State (23-10)

In a year in which so many Mountain West teams endured down seasons, Nevada was a clear exception. Relying heavily on the trio of torrid-shooting Marcus Marshall and athletic forwards Jordan Caroline and Cameron Oliver, Nevada evolved from a rapidly improving 19-win team the previous year into the league’s most formidable team this season. Pulling the trigger on this upset pick is tougher than most because Iowa State is on such a tear. The Big 12 tournament champion Cyclones have won nine of 10 thanks to the All-American-caliber play of point guard Monte Morris, the matchup problems posed by undersized forward Deonte Burton and the array of shooters around them. Could Nevada outscore Iowa State in what promises to be a fast-paced, free-flowing, 3-point happy matchup? Absolutely. Could Iowa State survive the opening round and then win a couple more games thereafter? That’s definitely possible too. Ken Pomeroy’s odds of an upset: 27 percent

4. No. 11 Wake Forest (19-13) vs. No. 6 Cincinnati (29-5)

Every year, there’s a team that emerges from the First Four and wins another game or two. If Wake Forest can survive its First Four matchup with Kansas State, the Demon Deacons have the potential to be that team. Wake Forest’s defense isn’t going to scare anyone, but the duo of John Collins and Bryant crawford fuels a high-scoring Demon Deacons offense that does virtually everything well. Crawford is a long-armed point guard capable of attacking off the dribble and creating for himself and others, while the 6-foot-10 Collins is an ultra-efficient 6-foot-10 big man who’s a threat for a double-double every game. While Cincinnati is improved offensively this season, the matchup with Wake Forest would probably come down to whether the Bearcats’ tough guards and big, strong wings could disrupt the more skilled Demon Deacons. It’s by no means an easy draw for Wake Forest, but it’s a winnable game for a team that beat Louisville and Virginia Tech already this month and previously took Duke and North Carolina down to the wire. Ken Pomeroy’s odds of an upset: N/A until after First Four

Middle Tennessee could topple a Big Ten team for a second straight year. (AP)
Middle Tennessee could topple a Big Ten team for a second straight year. (AP)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!