Buy, sell, or hold
We know what has happened in the world of college basketball thus far. But with the conference season under way, what will the future hold?
The answer is provided below in the annual Hoop Thoughts Stock Report (HTSR). Once again, the idea of this exercise is to project where a team is headed relative to its current position. That position is defined by its record, its ranking and that amorphous, subjectively defined animal we call "buzz."
The operative word here is relative. I'm more concerned with where teams are headed than where they are. So just because I rate Team A a Sell and Team B a Buy, that does not necessarily mean I think Team B is better than Team A. You dig?
I selected a HTSR-record 30 teams for this year's ratings. I wanted a healthy helping outside the Top 25, so my apologies if your favorite team wasn't included. Also, as promised, I'm going to start to include my AP ballot every week in this space. Feel free to have at me.
So without further ado, grab your wallets, Hoop Thinkers, and get ready to do some trading:
I really, really want to like this Wildcats team, but they keep letting me down. I know they're playing without Jerryd Bayless right now, but that's no excuse for not showing up defensively at home against Oregon on Saturday. I like that Jordan Hill gives them an inside weapon they haven't had in a while, but unless this team adopts a tougher identity, it will continue to disappoint in the rough-and-tumble Pac-10.
Arizona State: BUY
You better scoop this one up quick before word gets out that the Sun Devils are legit. Between the Princeton offense and the zone defense, they play an unconventional style that is throwing people off. Everybody wrote them off when they got blitzed by Illinois in the opener, but since then they've trounced a good Xavier team at home and beat Oregon at home last Thursday (which Arizona couldn't do). Freshman guard James Harden, who leads the team in scoring at 17.6 per game, has certainly lived up to his billing.
The Blue Devils have a great Plan A: Spread the floor, drive to the basket, make threes. When that's working, they can beat anyone. But what happens if the threes aren't falling and you have to go to Plan B -- and you don't have a serviceable big man? My sense is that Duke's Plan B is to hope Plan A works.
The Gators only have two losses, and though everyone understood this would be a rebuilding year, I still get the sense people are anticipating a late surge from this young team. In a word: nagahappen. The Gators have a hard time generating offense off of their defense, and Marreese Speights has shown he is not quite ready to carry a team on his back.
The Hoyas were unable to impose their style at Memphis, but this is still far-and-away the class of the Big East. What's amazing about the Hoyas is they have arguably the best center in the country in Roy Hibbert, yet they're not overly dependent on him. I can't imagine a better fit for JT3's offense than freshman guard Austin Freeman, a big, strong athlete who can score inside and out.
Yes, the Zags have some good players and played a tough nonconference schedule, but the reality is, their best win of the season was by three points over UConn in Boston. (Not quite a neutral site, but still not as tough as Gampel Pavilion.) It would be silly to Sell them since they're already out of the Top 25, but unless they're able to pull off a win at Memphis on Jan. 26, they might have to win the WCC tournament again to get to the NCAAs.
Hoosiers are just outside the top 10 right now, but that will change in the next couple of weeks. Not only is Eric Gordon the front-runner for Big Ten player of the year as a freshman, but I think he should be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. The Hoosiers also have plenty room for growth. Look for freshman Jordan Crawford and juco transfer Jamarcus Ellis to steadily improve the next two months.
No need to overthink this one. The Jayhawks have more depth and talent than any team in America, and I love the way Darnell Jackson is playing down low. Plus, the Big 12 is just so-so and they only have to play Texas once.
Kansas State: SELL
I realize the Wildcats have a 9-4 record and are unranked, but I'd guess there are still some people out there who are thinking, "Well, they have Michael Beasley, so they're probably going to the tournament." No, they're not. You still need good guard play in college basketball, and with David Hoskins still not recovered from knee surgery, it looks like Beasley's one season of college basketball will have to end in the NIT.
Talk about a basement bargain. Cats have nowhere to go but up (I think), and with Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks healthy again, you might as well take a flyer on 'em.
This has got to be the easiest pick on the board. Remember, last year the Cardinals were 6-4 in the Big East in early February and looked to be headed to the NIT. Then they got healthy and ended up a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tourney. This time, they got healthy in January. If they stay that way -- and if Edgar Sosa can somehow finagle his way out of Rick Pitino's doghouse -- then another mad dash is in the offing.
The Golden Eagles are short of quality big men and their guards don't make threes. But few teams do a better job masking their weaknesses and playing to their strengths. I don't see Marquette making its way to the top tier nationally, but they're a solid top-three finisher in the Big East and almost never lose games they should win. (There's no shame in losing close at West Virginia.)
I'm usually skeptical that a team can go undefeated (and frankly wouldn't recommend it), but the Tigers have already survived the hard part of their schedule without a blemish. Right now, I'd give them a 50-50 chance to go into the NCAA tournament without a loss.
Michigan State: HOLD
The Spartans have been mighty impressive the last month, largely because Raymar Morgan is looking like an All-Big Ten player. But it's hard to see them going higher than No. 6 in both polls. Getting to the Final Four is a realistic goal for this group, but I'd be very surprised if they won it all.
North Carolina: BUY
For a team to be undefeated and ranked No. 1 and still warrant a Buy, you'd have to believe it will do nothing short of win the NCAA championship. And I do.
N.C. State: SELL
The Wolfpack was already struggling with Farnold Degand as their point guard. Now that he's gone for the year, they're even more deficient at this most critical position. (His replacement, 6-foot freshman Javier Gonzalez, is not ready for prime time.) Too bad, because in freshman J.J. Hickson and junior Brandon Costner, the Wolfpack have as good a 1-2 punch up front as you'll see in the ACC. But they still need someone to get 'em the ball.
We knew the Sooners had some heft up front (my goodness, that Blake Griffin is something else), but their recent surge has been sparked by surprisingly efficient guard play. The top three spots in the Big 12 are pretty much locked up, but I like this team's chances of rising to the top of the second tier.
Ole Miss: SELL
In the twisted logic of the Hoop Thoughts stock report, the Rebs' win over Clemson actually makes them more likely to be rated a Sell. They're 13-0, they're ranked 16th in the AP poll, and they're playing at Tennessee Wednesday night. Seems to me they've got nowhere to go but down.
You'll want to keep an eye on this one because there's still some talent here, but even though the Panthers put up a good fight at Villanova on Sunday before losing, the reality is they have lost two starters to injury, including the one guy they could least afford to lose in point guard Levance Fields. Not only is Ronald Ramon not a point guard, but if Ramon is running the offense, that means he isn't catching the ball on the wing. They're saying Fields might come back from his foot injury at the end of the season, but I doubt that will leave him enough time to take the Panthers deep into the NCAA tournament.
The Ducks were close to being a Hold, but I figure they're as high as they're going to get after winning at Arizona. We knew coming into the year they'd have a hard time replacing Aaron Brooks, and boy have they ever. Not only has Tajuan Porter not made the transition to point guard, but he has turned in some truly horrendous shooting performances. (He's making 31.5 percent from behind the arc and has gone 2 for 18 the last three games).
This is a vote for the Vols as well as a vote against the SEC. There's no team in the country that is more relentless than Tennessee, and you've got to figure it's only a matter of time before Chris Lofton rediscovers his shooting touch. J.P. Prince, the midseason transfer from Arizona, has also made a much bigger impact than I anticipated.
The Longhorns registered the two sexiest triumphs of the nonconference season when they beat Tennessee and UCLA. When they shot them up to No. 4 in the AP poll, that was the time to sell. Now that they've settled in at No. 12 after losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin, they're probably right where they should be.
The addition of 6-7 freshman Gary Johnson should help (he missed the first 13 games after being diagnosed with a heart ailment, and had 15 points and six rebounds in Saturday's win over St. Mary's). If Johnson continues to have an impact, you may want to scoop up this stock in time for the final stretch, because there is Final Four-caliber talent here on the perimeter.
Texas A&M: SELL
At 12-1 and ranked 11th in the AP poll, the Aggies are a pretty safe bet to finish no lower than third in the Big 12. But they played a pretty easy nonconference schedule, and the one tough road game they played (at Arizona), they lost. Despite that comfy slate, they have committed 19 more turnovers than their opponents and are converting just 59.3 percent from the foul line.
I still like this team, but I'm starting to wonder if the Bruins are ever going to shake the injury bug. Losing Michael Roll again is a tough setback, and I'm still waiting for Darren Collison to show his old explosiveness. Kevin Love's conditioning is also an ongoing concern.
USC: SELL The Trojans finally fell out of the rankings after losing at Cal and Stanford last week. What bothers me is that the problems they have now are the same ones they had in early November. O.J. Mayo fires shots without conscience but can't (or won't) set up his teammates. (There's no excuse for a guard to take 19 shots and not have a single assist, as Mayo did in the loss at Stanford.) Taj Gibson is one of the bigger disappointments in college basketball, and as a team the Trojans are ranked last in the Pac-10 in turnovers and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Give the Commodores credit for being undefeated, but the reality is, their best win came at home last Saturday against UMass. Vandy's porous defense led my guy Luke Winn to list the Commodores as one of his "early warning" teams. They're ranked 112th nationally in defensive efficiency and are 11th in the SEC in both field goal defense and three-point defense. The main reason I don't list them as a Sell is because the SEC is so lame. See how they play next week at Kentucky and Tennessee and you'll have a better idea how good this team really is.
Washington State: BUY
If I could rate a team a BUY-plus, I'd do it for the Cougars. I can't remember a team generating less buzz while being ranked fourth in both polls. It's not always about who has the best future NBA players, folks.
West Virginia: HOLD
I might have recommended you Buy the Mountaineers, but they got some good buzz by knocking off Marquette on Sunday in Morgantown, so I'd just as soon leave them right where they are. You've got to give Bob Huggins credit for keeping the principles of John Beilein's offense intact while installing his own philosophies on defense. Beilein recruited these guys to play a certain way, and Huggins has artfully kept them playing to their strengths.
Yes, I may have underestimated this Badgers team, but we still need to take a wait-and-see approach with this bunch. They're ranked 21st, and you have to wonder how much higher they can climb. The win at Texas was mighty impressive (especially without Trevon Hughes), but I also got the feeling that was as well as Wisconsin could possibly play. Can they keep it up? Or will they undergo a reality check in Big Ten play?
I am mystified why the Musketeers are only ranked 24th, but I am equally certain they won't be so for long. Part of the reason they're so undervalued is so many voters overreacted to the loss at Arizona State. Given how well the Sun Devils have been playing, that loss doesn't look so bad now. I also recognize the Musketeers have a thin bench and no sure-fire NBA players, but they have an exciting veteran point guard in Drew Lavender and can beat you from a variety of positions.
Drake: At 11-1 (2-0 Missouri Valley), Drake is the best team in the state of Iowa. I know, that isn't saying very much.
Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks are 12-1, and that wins at Oklahoma looks even better now.
South Alabama: John Pelphrey left plenty of talent behind. The Jaguars have won eight in a row and only lost at Vanderbilt by three points.
Nebraska: Led by 6-11 senior center Aleks Maric (16.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 61.2 percent fg), Huskers have a chance to make you a quick buck when they host Kansas on Saturday.
South Florida: Bulls have a budding star in 6-4 freshman Dominique Jones. They're so undervalued right now, even if they make it to the Big East tournament, they'll be a good investment.
Penn and Princeton: Where have you gone, Pete Carril and Bob Weinauer? The perennial Ivy giants are a combined 7-20.
LSU: Tigers have lost five of their last seven, and Tasmin Mitchell, their best player, is out for the season. If the SEC season is a disaster, you can expect to hear a lot of speculation about John Brady's job security.
Oregon State: Seems like the only certainty in the Pac-10 is that the Beavers will finish last and Jay John will not be back next season.
Michigan: People ask me if there are ever days when John Beilein is happy he took this job. My answer: the first and 15th of every month.