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December 1, 2011

Top 10 upsets: A November to remember

The first few weeks of the season have featured a notable assortment of upsets.

The nation's top-ranked team in the preseason already has gone down, and the defending national champions fell to an upstart from outside the six major conferences. A relative Division I newcomer beat a Big East team that reached the NCAA tournament last season. One of the most storied programs in the history of the game opened its season with back-to-back losses to mid-major programs.

If November produced this many stunners, perhaps March will deliver even more madness than usual.

TOP 10 UPSETS

1. UCF 68, Connecticut 63: Last season, UCF raced to a 14-0 start that included wins over Florida and Miami before fading badly against Conference USA competition, so perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised to see the Knights pick up another high-profile non-conference win. But it's still a major shocker whenever the defending national champions fall to a traditional mid-level program from outside the six major conferences. This upset was particularly noteworthy because UCF rallied from a 17-point deficit in the final 16 minutes of this Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal in the Bahamas. Marcus Jordan and Keith Clanton are good enough to play anywhere, and they scored 20 points each to lead UCF. If the Knights play this well vs. conference foes, UCF soon may be known as more than just the school where Michael Jordan's son plays.

2. Presbyterian 56, Cincinnati 54: Presbyterian hadn't beaten a ranked team since moving up to Division I in 2007. Just a week before this game, Presbyterian had lost by 41 points at Duke in Mike Krzyzewski's record-tying 902nd career win. But the Blue Hose - who remain a provisional Division I member and aren't eligible for postseason play - somehow managed to beat the 20th-ranked Bearcats after trailing by 15 points midway through the second half. Khalid Mutakabbir tied his career high with 25 points and sank a 3-pointer to put Presbyterian ahead for good with 7.6 seconds remaining. Two days later, Presbyterian lost by 14 to Davidson.

3. Loyola Marymount 69, UCLA 58: UCLA reached the NCAA tournament's round of 32 last season and opened this season ranked 17th in the nation. Loyola Marymount went 11-21 last season and was picked to finish sixth out of nine teams in the West Coast Conference. But the Lions managed to ruin UCLA's season opener by going 10-of-15 from 3-point range. UCLA, which never led in the second half, was just 2-of-15 from beyond the arc. Ashley Hamilton scored 23 points and Anthony Ireland tallied 21 for LMU, while foul trouble limited UCLA big man Joshua Smith to five points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

4. Middle Tennessee 86, UCLA 66: You'd think a stunning loss to Loyola Marymount would have caused UCLA to show more tenacity in its next game. The Bruins instead got swamped by Middle Tennessee, a Sun Belt program that went 16-16 last season. Middle Tennessee set a school single-game record by shooting 71.4 percent from the field. The Blue Raiders also shot a stunning 10-of-11 from 3-point range against the Bruins, who dropped to 0-2 for the first time since 2002-03. UCLA went 4-of-20 from 3-point range. UCLA was playing without suspended forward Reeves Nelson, who was reinstated after the game.

5. UNLV 90, North Carolina 80: UNLV is far better than most - if not all - of the other winning teams on this list. This upset ranks so high because of the quality of the team it beat. Conventional wisdom throughout the preseason suggested North Carolina and Kentucky were on a different level from every other team in the country. That may yet be the case, but UNLV at least proved the Tar Heels aren't invincible. North Carolina arguably has the best frontcourt in the nation, yet UNLV outscored the Tar Heels 20-6 in second-chance points. UNLV also was helped by the home crowd. Although the Las Vegas Invitational championship game didn't actually take place on UNLV's home court, most of the 7,523 fans were rooting for the Runnin' Rebels. This list provides more cruel irony for UCLA fans: Chace Stanback, who began his career at UCLA, engineered UNLV's upset with 28 points and 10 rebounds.

6. Cleveland State 71, Vanderbilt 58: The Commodores were ranked seventh in the nation when they lost at home to Cleveland State on Nov. 13. Although Cleveland State is a quality Horizon League program, the Vikings were replacing first-round pick Norris Cole and figured to need some time to adjust to his absence. Cleveland State instead dominated a senior-laden Vanderbilt lineup, which was without starting center Festus Ezeli. Not only did Cleveland State win the game, it wasn't particularly close. The Vikings raced to a 16-point lead in the first half, and the margin never dropped below six in the last 10 minutes. Vanderbilt finished with 21 turnovers and only six assists.

7. Long Beach State 86, Pittsburgh 76: Long Beach State is a top mid-major team, with a legitimate star point guard in Casper Ware, but this upset still deserves a spot on the list because Pitt loses at home so rarely. Long Beach State's victory snapped Pitt's 58-game non-conference home winning streak. The Panthers, who were ranked ninth at the time, hadn't lost a non-conference home game since falling to Bucknell in 2005, and Long Beach State hadn't beaten a top-10 team since knocking off No. 1 Kansas in 1993. Ware scored 28 points to lead the 49ers, who shot a blistering 59.3 percent.

8. Kent State 70, West Virginia 60: Pitt wasn't the only Big East team to have a long non-conference home winning streak snapped by a mid-major. West Virginia had won 36 consecutive home games against non-Big East foes before falling to Kent State on Nov. 15. Kent State traditionally has one of the Mid-American Conference's top programs, but the Flashes had gone through an offseason coaching change. Rob Senderoff certainly had a memorable debut. His first career win as a coach came against Bob Huggins, a guy approaching 700 career wins. Although West Virginia outrebounded Kent State 46-31, the Mountaineers committed 17 turnovers and shot 2-of-12 from 3-point range. Kent State wasn't the only MAC team to deliver an early-season upset. Defending MAC champ Akron opened with a 68-58 victory at Mississippi State.

9. Norfolk State 61, Drexel 56: Drexel was the preseason favorite in the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference that includes 2011 Final Four participant VCU and a league that frequently earns multiple NCAA tournament bids. Norfolk State was picked to finish fourth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a one-bid league that often ends up in the NCAA tournament play-in game. Those projections didn't keep Norfolk State from knocking off Drexel in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. Norfolk State got double-doubles from Kyle O'Quinn (11 points, 12 rebounds, six blocks) and Pendarvis Williams (10 points, 10 rebounds). Norfolk State nearly pulled off an even bigger upset in the Paradise Jam championship game two days later before falling 59-57 to Marquette.

10. TCU 57, Virginia 55: The Virgin Islands may as well have been the Bermuda Triangle for favored teams this month. TCU's surprising victory over Virginia also came in the Paradise Jam, though the Horned Frogs followed that win up by losing to Norfolk State. Although Virginia hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 2007, the Cavaliers entered this season with high hopes. The Cavaliers had four returning starters and were getting back Mike Scott, a star forward who missed much of last season with an ankle injury. TCU has endured six consecutive losing seasons and was picked to finish seventh in the eight-team Mountain West this season. In a sloppy game that featured 40 combined turnovers, TCU won by outscoring Virginia 24-10 in the paint.

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