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March Madness 2017: 4 potential upset picks for your NCAA Tournament bracket

Middle Tennessee players celebrates their victory over Marshall

Middle Tennessee players celebrates their victory over Marshall in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament, Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala. Credit: AP / Eric Schultz

You are probably looking for ways to differentiate yourself from peers in your NCAA Tournament pool, right? Here are a few upset picks that can separate you from the pack.

(No. 10 Wichita State opened as a 6 ½-point favorite over No. 7 Dayton. Don’t pat yourself on the back for picking that “upset” pick correctly).

No. 12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Record: 30-4, 17-1 Conference USA

Region: South

First-round opponent: No. 5 Minnesota

The program that stunned second-seeded Michigan State in last year’s first round is a legitimate threat to reach the Sweet 16. Yes, some key players from last year’s team are no longer around, but Middle Tennessee is better this year. The Blue Raiders already have won five more games than last season, and they rank significantly higher in advanced metrics such as Kenpom, where they stand at 48th versus 119th last year.

Giddy Potts, a career 42.7 percent three-point shooter, is back. So is one of the tournament’s best athletes, Reggie Upshaw. Neither Potts nor Upshaw leads the team in scoring or rebounding. Those honors belong to Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who is averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Those three provide a versatile, terrifying assignmentfor any opponent. Just ask Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, who each fell to the Blue Raiders by double-digits this year.

Middle Tennessee is not a good pick just because of its

own talent. Minnesota received bad news over the weekend when Akeem Springs tore his achilles. Nate Mason and Amir Coffey are more than capable of carrying the Golden Gophers on a run, but Springs was a sparkplug for this team.

After you take the Blue Raiders over Minnesota, send them into the second weekend. No. 4 Butler seems capable of losing to anyone -- but more on that in a bit.

As of Tuesday afternoon, only 42 percent of Yahoo’s brackets had Middle Tennessee beating Minnesota. Just 17 percent had the Blue Raiders also upsetting Butler.

No. 11 Rhode Island Rams

Record: 24-9, 13-5 Atlantic 10

Region: Midwest

First-round opponent: No. 6 Creighton

Somehow only 40 percent of Yahoo brackets had Rhode Island advancing as of Tuesday afternoon, probably because people overreacted to the seed difference and Creighton’s “run” to the Big East title game.

The fact is that Creighton has been no better than mediocre since Maurice Watson Jr. tore an ACL on Jan. 16. At the time, the Blue Jays looked like a legitimate Final Four contender at 18-1 with a high-octane offense. But without Watson Jr., they have gone 7-8. Sure, two of those wins came in the Big East tournament, but beating Providence and a Xavier team also hobbled by injury was not all that impressive.

On the other side, you have Rhode Island. Between Dec. 6 and Feb. 10, the Rams played just two games with both Hassan Martin and Jarvis Garrett on the floor. They dropped Garrett’s first game back on Feb. 15 to fall to 16-9 but have not lost since. Over the past month, the Rams played under immense pressure every night as a bubble team. Their resume likely would not have earned an at-large bid, so they went into the Atlantic 10 tournament needing three wins in three days to dance. And here we are, with Rhode Island as the conference’s automatic qualifier.

The Rams can grind teams out with a defense that has limited opponents to the country’s ninth-best effective field-goal percentage (44.7). They have lost to Dayton twice and Providence and Valparaiso once by a possession. But, Rhode Island also has four wins in games decided by two possessions or less, including one over Cincinnati.

No. 12 Princeton Tigers

Record: 23-6, 14-0 Ivy

Region: West

First-round opponent: No. 5 Notre Dame

This one feels a little risky, considering Notre Dame’s recent NCAA tournament success, and only 14 percent of Yahoo brackets had Princeton advancing as of Tuesday afternoon. That could give you a chance to separate yourself, especially if you think West Virginia will eliminate Notre Dame in the second round.

Any team that shoots a lot of three-pointers and has the ability to convert them is dangerous in this single-elimination format. Princeton launches three-pointers at a higher rate (45.9 percent of field-goal attempts) than all but 13 teams in the country and converts 38.1 percent, which ranks 47th. The Tigers made 11 of 26 threes (42.3 percent) against Yale in the Ivy League final.

From a personnel standpoint, Princeton and Notre Dame are not worlds apart. They actually are fairly similar. The key will be three-point shooting. If the Tigers get hot from long distance, they could send Notre Dame home early.

No. 13 Winthrop Eagles

Record: 26-6, 15-3 Big South

Region: South

First-round opponent: No. 4 Butler

If you’re looking for a No. 13 seed capable of stealing a game, then hello, Winthrop. The Eagles play fast and they shoot a lot of threes (No. 29 at 43.6 percent of total field-goal attempts) and convert them (No. 49 at 38 percent).

Keon Johnson, an exciting 5-7 guard, is averaging 22.6 points and shooting 40 percent from deep. Versatile forward Xavier Cooks is a mismatch.

Plus, Butler has shown a propensity for playing to its opponent’s level. The Bulldogs have swept Villanova but they also have lost to Indiana State (11-20) and St. John’s (14-19) on the road and Georgetown (14-18) at home.

Winthrop likely will need to enforce its faster pace and convert a decent number of threes, but the Eagles -- who were selected in just six percent of Yahoo’s bracket as of Tuesday afternoon -- are a good pick here. You have an insurance blanket, too, because Middle Tennessee and Minnesota are each more than capable of eliminating Butler two days later.


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