Monday December 29th, 2014

The holiday season is almost over, and conference season is about to begin. You know what that means, don’t you?

It’s time to take stock.

Forget about Times Square and indulge in a far more estimable roundball tradition: the Hoop Thoughts Stock Report. This is the exercise where your resident Hoop Thinker projects whether the stocks of several teams are headed higher, going lower, or staying steady. Each stock is therefore assigned a rating: Buy, Sell or Hold. You can take these ratings to the bank shot.

As you read -- and I know you will carefully read every word, for you are a savvy shopper -- keep in mind the counterintuitive nature of the HTSR. If a team has been flying high, its stock is more likely to descend. If a team has been playing poorly, its stock has been depressed, which could make it a worthy investment. Thus, just because I rate Team A a Buy and Team B a Sell, that does not mean I believe Team A is better than Team B. Got it?

LUKE WINN: My favorite things in college hoops this year

Of course you do. We are Hoopheads, you and me. We rise and fall together. Everything you need to know about what will happen the next three months in college basketball is in this report. So happy new year, happy shopping, and most of all, happy hooping.

Now stock it to me!

Arizona (12-1, No. 8): HOLD

The Wildcats’ stock was deflated when they lost to UNLV, so if that convinces you to buy them, I won’t try to talk to you out of it. But considering where they’ve been ranked this season, for me to rate them a Buy would mean endorsing them as a top-tier national title contender -- and I’m just not there yet. They struggle too much offensively and have survived too many close calls. They’ll win the Pac-12 and could be a No. 1 seed in the West, but their ceiling as a stock is just about tapped out.

Arkansas (10-2, NR): BUY

I believed coming into the season that the Razorbacks were the second-best team in the SEC, and despite a couple of road hiccups at Iowa State and Clemson (in overtime), I haven’t changed my opinion. They dropped a couple of road games at Iowa State and Clemson, but there’s no shame in that. What’s really a shame is that the Razorbacks don’t get a shot at home against Kentucky, because that would have been a must-see game.

Baylor (10-1, No. 22): SELL

I’ve always loved teams that play two point guards, and that’s what the Bears are doing with Kenny Chery and Lester Medford. But I suspect the top-to-bottom difficulty of the Big 12 will pull this team down a few notches in the coming weeks. I’m also troubled by Baylor’s free throw shooting, which is ranked 309th in the country.

Butler (10-3, NR): HOLD

This stock was in a classic bubble after the Bulldogs beat North Carolina and Georgetown in the Bahamas, but recent losses to Tennessee and Indiana have modified the price. I love the perimeter trio of Alex Barlow, Kellen Dunham and (especially) Roosevelt Jones, but the overall lack of speed and size will be a problem in the much-improved Big East. 

BYU (10-4, NR): SELL

The Cougars had a chance to boost their stock when they hosted Gonzaga on Saturday night at the Marriott Center, but they couldn’t pull off the upset. They don’t play at Gonzaga until the final day of the regular season, so the only thing they can do the next two months is hurt themselves. The Cougars beat Stanford by two points two weeks ago, but losses to San Diego State, Purdue and Utah were wasted opportunities. BYU has one of the best individual scorers in the country in Tyler Haws, but this team doesn’t appear to have much interest in playing defense.

California (10-3, NR): SELL

The Bears were knocking on the door of the top 25 until they lost at home to CSU Bakersfield Sunday night. Their best win, over Syracuse in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 20, does not look nearly as good now as it did then. The Bears were also lucky to escape Montana in double overtime at home. Worst of all, they are heading into conference play still without their best outside shooter, sophomore Jabari Bird, who has been out with a stress fracture in his foot and doesn’t look like he will be back for a while.

Cincinnati (8-3, NR): SELL

I would have given the Bearcats this rating even before the news broke that coach Mick Cronin will be out indefinitely because of an unruptured aneurysm. In their first game without him, the Bearcats got blown out at home by VCU. Even with Cronin, Cincy still lost to Ole Miss (neutral) and at Nebraska. You can’t beat good teams if you can’t score, so Cincinnati has a fatal problem. I can only hope that Cronin will be OK and back on the sidelines soon.

Connecticut (6-4, NR): BUY

This is an easy call. This team has too much talent and is too well-coached to stay down for long. Ryan Boatright is not Shabazz Napier, but he’s still a lethal weapon who needs to learn how to make his teammates better. It would help if Rodney Purvis snaps out of his funk, but the American Conference is soft in the middle, so it’s only a matter of time before the Huskies rise to the top of the standings and return to the rankings.

Colorado State (13-0, No. 24): SELL

Another easy call, in reverse. All credit to the Rams for going into New Years Eve undefeated, but they have done it against a soft schedule. Colorado State has an effective and versatile player in senior forward J.J. Avila, but this team’s perimeter defense is way too forgiving to stay perfect for much longer.

Duke (10-0, No. 2): BUY

The Blue Devils’ dissection of Wisconsin has to be the season’s most impressive non-Kentucky performance of the first two months. Duke is much improved defensively over where it has been the past two years, and although Jahlil Okafor could be the best player in the country, the Blue Devils can survive long stretches where he is sidelined with foul trouble. The one concern moving forward is that Duke is down to nine scholarship players, which means staying healthy is at a premium.

Florida (7-4, NR): BUY

You won’t get rich buying this stock, but I think it’s safe to say the Gators have bottomed out. Kasey Hill is growing more comfortable as the fulltime starting point guard, and the addition of 6-foot-8 Duke transfer Alex Murphy will bolster this team’s anemic offense. Given how weak the SEC is this season, it’s hard to imagine the Gators failing to make the NCAA tournament; but even if they do, their stock price is so low right now that it won’t hurt your wallet too badly.

Georgetown (8-3, No. 25): BUY

All three of the Hoyas’ losses have been of the “almost” variety. They almost beat Wisconsin (before losing by three), Butler (by six) and Kansas (by five). So I was not surprised they beat Indiana in overtime last weekend. As long as senior center Joshua Smith is on the floor, the Hoyas have a unique weapon, and John Thompson III’s Princeton-like system is spearheaded by one of the top scoring point guards in the country in D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. The Hoyas are headed for a top-tier Big East finish and a place in the NCAA tournament. That’s a solid investment.

MORE CBB: Why Hoyas wore 'I Can't Breathe' T-shirts

Gonzaga (12-1, No. 7): BUY

The 'Zags took care of business by fending off a plucky BYU squad in Provo Saturday night. It’s hard to see where they are going to suffer another loss between now and the NCAA tournament. This is a veteran team, and there is a huge gulf between them and the rest of the West Coast Conference. My only concern right now with Gonzaga is a lack of bench production, but hopefully freshman point guard Josh Perkins, who suffered a broken jaw in a win over St. John’s last month, won’t be out for too much longer.

Harvard (7-3, NR): BUY

The Crimson suffered yet another disappointing loss on Sunday at Arizona State. The Ivy looks stronger than it has been in a long time thanks to big wins over UConn (by Yale), Providence (by Brown) and a strong first half at Kentucky (by Columbia). Therefore, in the inverted logic of the HTSR, this is the perfect time to buy Harvard. At the end of the day, this team is still the favorite to win the conference, thanks to the presence of the Ivy’s best backcourt, Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers.

WOODEN WATCH: Saunders just outside the top five

Illinois (10-3, NR): SELL

I’ve been waiting for the Illini to break through with a signature win, but their best win was on a neutral court against a pretty bad Missouri team -- and even then Illinois need a buzzer beater by Rayvonte Rice to seal the deal. Moreover, four of Illinois’ first five Big Ten games are on the road, beginning with trips to Michigan and Ohio State. I like this team’s guards, and Nnanna Egwu is a defensive force at the rim, but it will be hard to win in the Big Ten without a consistent post scoring option.

Indiana (10-3, NR): BUY

I’ve been a believer in this team for a while now, and the loss to Georgetown over the weekend only makes this a better purchase. The Hoosiers rely heavily on a freshman guard, James Blackmon Jr., who is going to continue to improve, and they have an emerging star in jumping jack forward Troy Williams. They won’t beast many opponents in the paint, but I like their depth and the way they compete. Perhaps more than any other team in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers stand to benefit the most from the downturn the league is experiencing.

Iowa (9-4, NR): SELL

The Hawkeyes bought some house money with that win in Chapel Hill, but I don’t think that will be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament. They couldn’t beat a depleted Syracuse team in Madison Square Garden, and they couldn’t beat Iowa State at home when the Cyclones were missing their second-leading scorer. Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff make a nice pair of bookend forwards, but Iowa does not have enough perimeter punch to make this stock worthwhile.

Iowa State (9-1, No. 9): BUY

You can never go wrong betting your hard-earned dollars on Georges Niang. He is versatile, savvy, and easy to root for. The Cyclones get a lot of notice for their fast pace and offensive efficiency, but this team also leads the nation in defensive free throw rate. I also love the addition of transfer Jameel McKay, who just became eligible and will give Iowa State the rim protector it has thus far lacked.

Kansas (9-2, No. 13): BUY

Given that the Jayhawks got embarrassed at Temple last week, I was tempted to give them my special rating of Buy-Plus. I’m only holding back because I think people understand that this is a young team that is going through growing pains, but that we have seen this movie before -- and it always ends with a Big 12 title. I still think we’re going to have a repeat, but it will depend on how much freshmen Kelly Oubre and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk improve.

Jamie Squire/Getty

Kansas State (7-5, NR): SELL

The Wildcats were unimpressive during nonconference play even before they blew a four-point lead with 15 seconds remaining to lose at home to Texas Southern. So even though the stock price is real low, I still don’t see much reason to hold onto it. The Wildcats have a terrific player in sophomore guard Marcus Foster, but it’s apparent their new pieces aren’t jelling. They gave Arizona a good fight in Hawaii but got drilled by Pittsburgh the following day by 23 points. If the Big 12 were average, the Wildcats would have a shot to sneak into the NCAA tournament, but in this league, in this season, that is a little too much to ask.

Kentucky (13-0, No. 1): BUY

There were a lot of snickers when I first started suggesting in the summer that Kentucky could run the table. Nobody’s laughing now. This team has already vanquished four teams that were ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, so unless they suffer a slew of injuries or downshift into sleepwalk mode, they are a strong bet to enter the NCAA tournament still perfect. One storyline to watch is at point guard, where freshman Tyler Ulis made a huge statement during the win at Louisville. As his playing time grows and Andrew Harrison’s shrink, the yappers will do their thing.

MORE CBB: Kentucky must turn inward in pursuit of perfection

Louisville (11-1, No. 5): HOLD

The Cardinals are a really good team, maybe a Final Four team, but I’m not sure their stock can climb much higher. Keep in mind that this is their first season in the ACC, which is a considerable step up to from where the American Conference was last season. I’m also starting to realize that the outside shooting problems that Terry Rozier and Chris Jones have been having are not the result of slumps. They’re just bad shooters.

LSU (9-2, NR): BUY

The Tigers’ two losses came in the Virgin Islands to Old Dominion and Clemson, so there’s no shame in that. They proved as much by scoring a comeback win on the road against a solid West Virginia squad. Yes, the SEC is down, so that’s a good reason to buy, but there is an even better one: LSU plays Kentucky just once, and that will happen in Baton Rouge on Feb. 10. If they somehow pull off the upset, this stock price will go through the roof. Better to get in early.

Maryland (12-1, No. 12): HOLD

It’s hard to imagine this stock can climb any higher, but it also won’t fall too far. Maryland’s leading scorer, Dez Wells, just returned from a five-week absence caused by a wrist injury, and this is not a great year for the Big Ten. My biggest concern is that the Terps rely so heavily on three freshmen (two of whom start), and young players with big responsibilities tend to hit the midway through league play.

BRACKET WATCH: Maryland a No. 4 seed as Virginia rises to the top line

Memphis (7-4, NR): SELL

The Tigers benefited from being a senior-dominated rotation last season, but now they are paying the price. I like the forward tandem of Austin Nichols and Shaq Goodwin, but this team’s guards are pretty awful. They don’t take care of the ball (Memphis is ranked 322nd in turnover percentage) or force turnovers (326th in steal percentage). All four of Memphis’ losses have come against good teams, but the Tigers were not competitive in any of those games.

Miami (9-3, NR): SELL

The Hurricanes got into the rankings with wins over Florida and Illinois, but this stock has taken a vicious hit as the Hurricanes lost three out of four. You’d think that would make me inclined to rate this stock a Hold at least, but check out the opening of Miami’s ACC schedule: vs. Virginia, vs. Boston College, at Duke, at Notre Dame. They could very well lose three of those four, which would mean a stretch of six losses in nine games. So I’d dump this stock now, and if you want to scoop it up in a couple of weeks at a dirt-cheap price, be my guest.

Michigan (7-5, NR): BUY

This stock is the bargain hunter’s dream. The price plummeted thanks to a four-game losing streak that included home losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan, but this is still the same team that beat Oregon and Syracuse and took Villanova to the last possession. The Wolverines aren’t great by any stretch, but they aren’t as bad as they’ve been playing, and John Beilein is still one of the best coaches in the country. You’ve got to believe that Beilein is going to figure something out to make this purchase worth your while.

J and L Photography via Getty

Michigan State (9-4, NR): BUY

The Spartans are unranked and just lost at home to Texas Southern. In other words, this is the perfect time to buy. As I wrote last week in Hoop Thoughts, this is a talented team that is still working to develop its traditional blue-collar identity. Also, keep in mind that the Spartans did not have Branden Dawson in that loss. Yes, they should have beaten Texas Southern anyway, but I highly doubt they would have lost had he been healthy. They will also get better as Javon Bess gets more comfortable. The 6-5 freshman swingman missed the first 10 games because of a broken foot, but he will give the Spartans some badly needed offensive rebounding and defensive versatility.

Minnesota (11-2, NR): HOLD

The Golden Gophers have done a nice job beating teams they’re supposed to beat and are garnering a smidgen of notice from poll voters, but so far they haven’t offered any reason to believe they are headed for an upper-tier finish in the Big Ten. Still, I like that this is one of the oldest teams in the country, and you never know when Andre Hollins is going to go off. We’ll know a lot more about this team after it opens Big Ten play with road dates at Purdue, Maryland and Michigan in its first four games.

Nebraska (8-4, NR): BUY

This stock is worth buying just for the adventure of it. Heck, it won’t cost you anything. It is just hard for me to believe the Cornhuskers are really this bad. They returned four starters, including all-league guard Terran Petteway, from a squad that made the NCAA tournament. Nebraska has been just godawful on offense, but that is the type of thing that can get better as a season progresses. Also, keep in mind that last season the Huskers got into the tournament by winning eight of their last nine regular season games. Maybe that’s just how Tim Miles rolls.

North Carolina (9-3, No. 19): BUY

Lots of people (myself included) have labeled the Tar Heels an early disappointment, but it’s not like any of their three losses were awful. If nothing else, they challenged Kentucky better than Kansas or UCLA did. North Carolina’s problem has been a lack of competitive toughness, but it showed in dominating Ohio State that this roster still has plenty of talent. I also believe it’s a matter of time before Marcus Paige breaks out of his shooting slump.

MORE CBB: Can North Carolina shed its inconsistency?

N.C. State (10-3, NR): SELL

The Wolfpack’s best wins came at home against Boise State and Tennessee, but they couldn’t win at Purdue, they got embarrassed on a neutral court by West Virginia and they lost at home to Wofford. Beginning on Jan. 7, they have a brutal conference stretch with road games at Virginia, Florida State and Miami plus home games against Duke, North Carolina and Notre Dame. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Pack lose five of those six games. After that, they could face a very steep climb back to respectability.

Northern Iowa (11-1, No. 23): BUY

You might think I’d recommend a Hold or Sell given the Panthers’ record and ranking, but I also don’t see them losing for a while. They don’t have to play Wichita State until Jan. 31, and they don’t play the Shockers on the road until the last game of the regular season. It’s reasonable to anticipate that UNI will win its next 10 games while teams ranked above will lose in their leagues.

Notre Dame (12-1, No. 14): BUY

The Irish have a gaudy record and a lofty ranking. So where’s the buzz? It’s coming, because this is the best offensive team in the country. Notre Dame is ranked in the top 10 nationally in points (86.1), field goal percentage (55.6), three-point percentage (41.5), turnovers (9.0), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.77) and offensive efficiency. I’m a little concerned about the short bench, but when you have an All-American talent like 6-5 senior guard Jerian Grant on your roster, there’s no reason to sub for him unless you have to.

Joe Robbins/Getty

Ohio State (11-2, No. 20): HOLD

I would have rated the Buckeyes a Sell if they had beaten North Carolina, but that loss put their stock price right where it belongs. This is a good team, but its record is a reflection of a weak, home-cooked schedule. Still, freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, who ranks fifth in the Big Ten in scoring at 17.2 points per game, is the real thing, and because of the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule, Ohio State does not have to play at Wisconsin.

MORE CBB: Russell boosting Ohio State's Big Ten dreams

Oklahoma (8-3, No. 18): HOLD

The Sooners aren’t a great team, but they’re solid, and because of the prowess of the Big 12, they’re bound to get some quality wins. I have some concerns, though. Buddy Hield needs to be smarter with shot selection (he’s shooting just 39.2 percent from the field), as a team the Sooners are too reliant on jump shots (324th in the country in free throw rate), and they are not real big inside (last in the Big 12 in rebound margin). So they don’t have much higher to climb, but because they are so well-coached, I don’t see them falling too far, either. A nice, safe bet.

Oklahoma State (9-2, NR): SELL

The Cowboys are not as good as their record would indicate. One of their losses was an embarrassing 26-point drubbing at South Carolina, and they were never really in position to beat Maryland at home, even though the Terps were without their leading scorer. Oklahoma State has an all-league caliber forward in Le’Bryan Nash and one of the nation’s top three-point shooters in Phil Forte, but this team doesn’t have anyone who can set up his teammates the way Marcus Smart did (although they’re hoping LSU transfer Anthony Hickey will continue to grow into the role). The larger concern is a four-game stretch beginning Jan. 6 that includes road games at Iowa State, Kansas and Oklahoma and a home game against Texas. You don’t want to own stock in a team that could be a week away from a four-game losing streak.

Oregon (9-3, NR): SELL

As far as I can tell, there’s not much reason to like this team beyond Joseph Young, the 6-2 senior guard who is the Pac 12’s leading scorer at 20.3 points per game. The Ducks aren’t bad defensively, but they’re not disruptive either, which is why they have a hard time beating talented teams. Their best win came on a neutral court over Illinois, and one of their losses came at home to Ole Miss. The Pac-12 is just strong enough to keep Oregon out of the NCAA tournament, in which case this stock will be worthless come March. Might as well dump it now.

Pittsburgh (9-3, NR): SELL

The good news is that the Panthers have rebounded from a rough start to win five straight games. The bad news is they all came at home against weaker teams. (The win over Duquesne was technically a neutral court game, but it was still played in Pittsburgh.) The offense should run more smoothly now that senior point guard Cameron Wright has returned after missing the first month because of a foot surgery, but the bottom line is that this team really struggles to score, and that will be a fatal flaw in the ACC this season.

Purdue (8-5, NR): BUY

This one is worth a flyer, because the Boilermakers’ stock could hardly be lower right now. They just lost three straight, including one at home to Gardener-Webb, but perhaps that’s to be expected from a team that has two freshmen amongst its top three scorers. Beyond its youth, Purdue’s main problem right now is poor defense, but it’s hard to believe Matt Painter can’t get them to improve in that department. Purdue probably won’t make the NCAA tournament, but it will get better, so this is a smart little bet.

San Diego State (10-3, NR): SELL

Even though SDSU has dropped out of the rankings, I sense that fans still look at this as a potentially elite team. I don’t. Last season, the Aztecs were a dominant defensive team that struggled to score, even though they had one of the most dynamic combo guards in the country in Xavier Thames. This year, they are still good on defense, but they lack a scorer of Thames’ caliber. SDSU scored 36 points in a loss at Washington and scored 62 in an overtime loss at Cincinnati. The Aztecs might still scrap and claw their way back to the NCAA tournament, but I don’t envision them doing much damage.

St. John’s (11-1, No. 15): BUY

The Red Storm don’t have much depth, but their top six guys are wily old veterans who can hang with anyone. That alone would make them a good bet at this stage, but I also rated them a Buy because I like their schedule. During the first four weeks of January, the Johnnies have home games against Butler, Villanova and Duke. It’s very possible they could win at least two of those three, and if they are able to pull off the upset of Duke at Madison Square Garden, their stock will go through the roof.

 

Seton Hall (10-2, NR): SELL

I really think the Pirates could have contended for an NCAA berth, but now that freshman Isaiah Whitehead is gone for a while (possibly the entire season) because of a stress fracture in his foot, it’s hard to believe the Hall will get there. Even with Whitehead, the Pirates were sloppy with the ball and were the worst free throw shooting team in the Big East.

SMU (8-3, NR): BUY

Hopefully you were smart enough to buy this stock before the Mustangs played at Michigan, because they are going to be a different team with junior center Markus Kennedy back from academic purgatory. I love the inside-outside combo of Nic Moore and Yanick Moreira, and even before Kennedy came back, SMU was defending fairly well. Given how league opponents UConn, Cincinnati and Memphis have struggled in the early going, I expect SMU to be back in the national rankings fairly soon. Even if they’re not, I have faith that Larry Brown will figure out a way to get this team into the NCAA tournament.

MORE CBB: Jean-Micheal Mudiay's senior season isn't as sweet without brother Emmanuel

Stanford (7-3, NR): HOLD

I’m still trying to figure out how the same team that beat UNLV by 29 points and knocked off Texas on the road could lose at DePaul by 15 points. This is an NCAA tournament team, but having just pulled off the upset in Austin, I doubt the Cardinal’s stock can go much higher. Chasson Randle is as good a scoring point guard as you’ll find, but it remains to be seen whether senior forward Anthony Brown, who was the hero of the Texas win, is going to provide that kind of offensive punch consistently.

Syracuse (8-4, NR): BUY

This price is pretty deflated right now, so there’s not much risk in buying a few shares. I probably would not have rated the Orange higher than a Hold if they had not performed so well in that loss at Villanova last week. If Syracuse can take a top-10 team to the wire on its own homecourt, that tells me it has potential. Yes, the Orange have no bench and are awful shooting three pointers, and it’s obvious that Kaleb Joseph is no Tyler Ennis. Still, none of their four losses were against bad teams. Syracuse only has to play Virginia once (at home) and its ACC schedule is back-loaded. If it goes into its home date with Duke on February 14 with just one ACC loss, then this will have turned out to be an excellent purchase.

Bleeding Orange excerpt: Boeheim reflects on 50 years of Syracuse basketball

TCU (12-0, NR): SELL-PLUS

This is the first time in the history of the HTSR that I have issued this rating. The Horned Frogs have every reason to feel good about their perfect record and national ranking, but this is basically the same team that did not win a single conference game last season. Not one! Their nonconference schedule is full of lousy teams, and their best win in came at Ole Miss. And get this: Beginning on Jan. 19, the Horned Frogs will play seven consecutive games against teams that are currently ranked. So this team is headed for a hard crash, and if you’re still holding the stock, you’re going to crash right along with it.

Temple (9-4, NR): BUY

No, I don’t believe the Owls are really 25 points better than Kansas -- but they’re still pretty good. They already had an effective (although offensively limited) guard in 6-2 senior Will Cummings, and now they’ve added two impact midseason transfers. If you scoop up this stock quickly, you might make a quick profit if Temple can win at UConn on New Years Eve. Beyond that, the Owls will benefit from the American having a down season, and if this team is on the bubble heading into Selection Sunday, that win over Kansas is going to be huge.

Tennessee (7-4, NR): BUY

An inexpensive stock with some upside. I mean, somebody from the SEC besides Kentucky is going to make the NCAA tournament, right? Besides, the Vols only play Kentucky once, and that game is in Knoxville. Tennessee has a pair of not-awful losses to Marquette (neutral court) and N.C. State (road), but its win at home over Butler shows that it has the potential at least to get onto the bubble. I wish the Vols were more committed to playing defense (they’re ranked 10th in the SEC in field goal percentage defense, and dead last in three-point D), but they have an all-conference caliber player in Josh Richardson. On some nights that is going to be enough.

Texas (10-2, No. 11): BUY

This is a great time to buy this stock. The Longhorns have lost some of their early momentum with losses to Kentucky and Stanford and a near-loss at UConn, but all those games were played without their most important player, sophomore point guard Isaiah Taylor. He is hoping to return in time for the Big 12 opener against Texas Tech on Jan. 3. With Taylor back in the fold, and with freshman forward Myles Turner steadily improving, the Longhorns will be well-positioned to finally wrest conference supremacy away from Kansas.

UCLA (8-5, NR): SELL

None of the Bruins’ losses were terrible: Oklahoma, North Carolina and Kentucky on a neutral court, Gonzaga at home, and Alabama on the road. But between the brand this team carries and the pro potential of freshman forward Kevon Looney, I sense there is an assumption this is still a solid team that should be feared if it makes the NCAA tournament. I don’t think it is. There is too much inexperience on this roster, and it’s clear that 6-4 senior guard Norman Powell is not good enough to carry this team as its primary offensive option. Moreover, Steve Alford’s already thin bench just got thinner with the announcement that 6-9 sophomore forward Wanaah Bail is academically ineligible for the rest of the season.

UNLV (9-3, NR): HOLD

Yes, the win over Arizona was impressive, and if 6-11 sophomore forward Christian Wood grows into an offensive dynamo, that could be a game-changer. I’m urging caution, however, because a) this price is inflated because of the big win, b) the Rebels play at Kansas next weekend and c) they have road games at Boise State and San Diego State within their first four league games. If you want to scoop up this stock after that stretch, be my guest, but I still think the odds are 50-50 at best that UNLV makes the NCAA tournament.

Ethan Miller/Getty

Utah (9-2, No. 10): BUY

At the start of the season, most experts pegged Utah as the strongest challenger to Arizona in the Pac 12, and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that was wrong. The Utes have fared well against a very tough schedule that included road games at San Diego State and BYU and a neutral-road game against Kansas in Kansas City. And they’ve done it mostly without one of their best players, junior forward Jordan Loveridge, who missed all but the first four games because of a knee injury. Loveridge will hopefully be back soon to join the surprising 7-foot freshman Jakob Poeltl and form a formidable frontcourt.

UTEP (6-5, NR): BUY

I’ve hyped this team a lot this season, so there’s no point in backing down now. The Miners didn’t exactly light it up during the nonconference schedule, but they were competitive in all of those losses, including a hard-fought five-point defeat at home against Arizona. That should toughen them up for Conference USA. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see Vincent Hunter, the Miners’ 6-8 sophomore rubber band, try to get a gander, because he will be coming soon to an NBA roster near you.

Villanova (12-0, No. 6): HOLD

Even though this team is the class of the Big East, I almost rated it a Sell, because the Wildcats have nowhere to go but down. The league is too good for anyone to go undefeated, and the Wildcats have already had a couple of close shaves against potential bubble teams Michigan and Syracuse. Still, although Villanova could be a little more efficient with its long-range shooting, for the most part this is a team without any real weaknesses. Plus, it has all the intangibles (toughness, experience, chemistry) that are so valuable in March.

Virginia (11-0, No. 3): HOLD

It would appear that the Cavaliers also have nowhere to go but down, but they won’t fall far. They did a great job taking care of business during the nonconference season, most notably with convincing road wins at VCU and Maryland, and their overall athleticism is better than it was last season, when they won the ACC and earned a No. 1 seed. We all know Virginia isn’t going undefeated, but considering it does not have to play a road game at Duke this season, the Cavs are a very solid investment.

MORE CBB: Virginia showing it's a legit Final Four contender

VCU (9-3, NR): BUY

This rating is as much an indictment of the Atlantic-10 as it is an endorsement of VCU. The league had a rough go of it during the nonconference season, and I would not be surprised if it only sent one or two teams to the NCAA tournament. However, I do like the Rams. Treveon Graham has evolved into a more complete offensive player, and there are a couple of freshmen on Shaka Smart’s bench who have the potential to rapidly mature over the next two months.

Washington (11-1, No. 21): HOLD

I was going to rate the Huskies a Sell until they lost at home to Stony Brook on Sunday. Now that the stock price has taken a big hit, you might as well hold onto it. This team is fun to watch, but it had a couple of close calls in the nonconference season against UTEP and Oklahoma. Washington opens league play this weekend with a road trip to Cal and Stanford, and it has to play at Utah on Jan. 25, so more losses could be on the way. On the flip side, Washington is clearly an NCAA tournament team and does not have to play at Arizona, so by the time March rolls around, this will look like a pretty good investment.

West Virginia (11-1, No. 17): SELL

It’s hard to bet against Bob Huggins, but this team could be in for a rude awakening. The Mountaineers’ best nonconference win (over UConn in Puerto Rico) doesn’t look quite so good in retrospect, and they blew a big second-half lead at home to lose to LSU. The Big 12 slate will be a problem, not only because the league is so good, but also because West Virginia has to travel by far the most number of miles to play road games. That can wear on a team over the course of a season.

Wichita State (10-2, No. 16): SELL

The Shockers were flirting with defeat even before they got clipped by George Washington in Hawaii on Christmas night. They needed overtime to get by Hawaii two days before that game, and they were very lucky to beat Alabama at home two weeks ago. Besides missing Cleanthony Early’s slashing ability, Wichita State is also not as good in the paint, offensively or defensively, as it was last season. Plus, unlike last year, the Shockers have a bona fide challenger in the Missouri Valley this season in Northern Iowa. I’d be very surprised if Wichita State is not back in the NCAA tournament, but I don’t believe the public is tuned in yet to this team’s long-term deficiencies. Sell now, and you will be ahead of the curve.

Wisconsin (12-1, No. 4): BUY

The Big Ten really ought to rethink how it puts together its schedule. The Badgers face their primary challengers Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State just once each. Three of those games come during the final four-game stretch. Moreover, it’s apparent that even those challengers are not as good as many of us thought they would be -- and I didn’t even include Michigan, which has just about fallen off the map. That means there’s an excellent chance the Badgers will go undefeated in Big Ten play this season. So even with their record, ranking and off-the-charts buzz, they remain a good Buy.

Xavier (9-3, NR): SELL

The Big East is going to be a bear, and this is the team that will probably suffer the most as a result. The Musketeers have a good record but it came against a so-so schedule, with losses to UTEP and Long Beach State in Anaheim and a double-overtime road loss to a pretty bad Auburn team. Chris Mack recently lamented his team’s lack of defensive toughness, and that’s a pretty bad deficiency to have heading into conference play.

Twelve Sleeper Stocks

Ricardo Arduengo/AP

Old Dominion (10-1): Home wins over VCU and Georgia State indicate that the Monarchs are a real threat to win in Conference USA.

Penn State (12-1): Nittany Lions have the Big Ten’s leading scorer in 6-4 senior guard D.J. Newbill.

Davidson (9-1): Wildcats were supposed to be a flop in their first season in the Atlantic-10. With road games coming up at Virginia and VCU, we’ll find out how good they are.

Eastern Washington (9-4): Eagles lost a bad one at Sam Houston State, but they played SMU and Washington tough on the road, and they beat Indiana by two in Bloomington.

Marquette (8-4): Golden Eagles are a vastly improved team now that 6-11 Indiana transfer Luke Fischer is eligible.

Eastern Michigan (11-2): The Eagles’ win in Ann Arbor was no fluke. Their unconventional zone defense will be unfamiliar and hard to deal with if they can get into the NCAA tournament.

Buffalo (7-3): Bobby Hurley’s crew gave Kentucky a brief scare in Rupp Arena back on Nov. 16, and they got toughened up for the MAC by playing a challenging, road-heavy nonconference schedule.

Wyoming (11-2): The Mountain West is wide open, and the Cowboys, who almost knocked off Cal in Berkeley, play a slow, efficient style that will keep them in a lot of games.

Boise State (10-3): Another team that could sneak up and win the Mountain West. Derrick Marks is the league’s best all-around guard.

Incarnate Word (8-2): Don’t feel bad if you had never heard of this school until the Cardinals knocked off Nebraska. They also won a game at Princeton and look to be the class of the Southland.

Wofford (9-3): The Terriers got some quality nonconference wins on the road over Fairfield and N.C. State and also knocked off Iona at home.

Hawaii (10-4): The Rainbow Warriors own wins over Pittsburgh, Nebraska and Colorado, and they darn near knocked off Wichita State before falling by one point in overtime. Pretty good for a school that fired its head coach right before the season began.

Six to Dump (if you haven’t already)

Wake Forest (7-6): The Demon Deacons earned their best win of the season on Sunday at Richmond, but they are still headed for yet another bottom-tier finish in the ACC.

Rutgers (8-5): If Wake Forest isn’t the worst offensive team in the Power Five conferences, then Rutgers is.

Delaware (0-10): Looks like they’re serving bagels in Newark. Where have you gone, Mike Pegues?

Rice (3-7): With losses to William & Mary, Alaska Anchorage, Houston Baptist and Lamar already in the books, it’s going to be a long Conference USA season for the Owls.

Washington State (6-6): It’s hard to believe Tony Bennett took this program to the Sweet 16 just six years ago.

DePaul (6-7): The Blue Demons own a win over Stanford, but they’ve also lost their last seven games. It’s fair to say they will miss out on the NCAA tournament for the 11th consecutive year.

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