Monday January 4th, 2010

It's a new year, a new decade and a new season in college basketball.

In other words, it's time to take stock.

The best way to do just that is to read my annual Hoop Thoughts Stock Report. The purpose of this exercise is not to determine the top teams in the country; that's what the polls are for. Rather, it's to predict what the conference season will reveal over the coming weeks. With conference play officially underway, teams will no longer be able to hide their deficiencies by paying lesser squads to travel to their home gyms and play games whistled by friendly referees. Over the next few weeks, we'll learn a lot more about who is worthy of high rankings and high praise, and who deserves to be demoted and pushed off the radar. The HTSR can tell you all of that when you need to know it -- before it happens.

Once again, I have taken stock of 30 of the nation's most prominent programs and issued ratings based on where I think teams are headed relative to their current standing. I have determined that standing based on their records, their rankings in the AP poll and that all-important, hard-to-discern, ultimately subjective category called "buzz." If I think a team's metrics are higher than they should be, I've recommended you sell their stock. If they're underrated, I've told you to buy. If they're just about right, I've rated them a hold. Keep in mind that in the bizarro world of the HTSR, a team that has performed well thus far is actually more likely to warrant a sell rating than one that has underperformed. Thus, just because I rate Team A a sell and Team B a buy, that does not necessarily mean I believe Team B is better.

Since you are a devoted Hoop Thinker, you have no problem understanding such a complex concept. Here, then, are my stock ratings, followed by a short list of sleepers and stocks to dump. Happy shopping.

The Bears have earned this rare rating because they have gotten absolutely no notice (much less respect from the pollsters) for their 11-1 start. True, their schedule hasn't exactly been a murderer's row, but they do have away-from-home wins over Xavier (neutral) and Arizona State (road), and last week they won at Arkansas and South Carolina by a combined 34 points. Just watch 'em play and you'll see why I'm so high on them. Baylor has been one of the more athletic teams in the Big 12 the last two years, but now they are also one of the biggest teams in the nation, with a formidable frontline anchored by 6-foot-10 junior forward Ekpe Udoh, who is fourth in the nation in blocks and leads the Big 12 in rebounds. Baylor will have a chance to justify my rating during a four-game stretch beginning Jan. 20 that includes road games at Kansas and Texas and a home date with Kansas State. If they win just one of those three, their stock will skyrocket.

Talk about a discount: The Bears dropped off the radar after they got swept out of Madison Square Garden by Syracuse and Ohio State back in November, but they played without Theo Robertson, the 6-6 senior forward who was a 48.7 percent three-point shooter last year. The Bears lost three of the six games Robertson sat out because of a stress reaction in his foot, but he showed his value to the team when he had 13 points and three rebounds in the Bears' loss at Kansas last month. Cal actually hung tough in that game before the Jayhawks pulled away in the last eight minutes. With the Pac-10 being so diminished, the Bears are ready to resume their status as league favorite, so you better scoop 'em up before the word gets out.

No matter what the Tigers do this season, in my eyes they will always be the team that blew a 23-point second-half lead at home to a good-but-far-from-great Illinois team. That should raise a red flag about Clemson's mental toughness, but the pratfall also revealed that the Tigers are having a harder time replacing the perimeter players they lost from last season than many experts originally believed. I stopped putting the Tigers on my AP ballot several weeks ago, but it took my fellow pollsters a while before dropping them out of the rankings. It won't get easier for the Tigers later this month, when they play North Carolina and Duke at home and Georgia Tech on the road in a tough four-game stretch. Clemson may win some notable games this season, but in the end this team does not strike me as a threat to make noise in the NCAA tournament.

Quick, what is UConn's best win? Answer: Notre Dame at home. The Huskies' ranking and reputation owes far more to the program's recent history than anything this current edition has accomplished. UConn is not getting enough scoring from its post players, and sophomore point guard Kemba Walker is having a hard time learning how to manage a game and play at different speeds. True, Stanley Robinson and Jerome Dyson are as good a duo as you'll find in the Big East, and the Huskies caught a break with their league schedule because they only have to play Georgetown, Syracuse and Villanova once each (though they're all on the road). They only have two nonconference games remaining on the schedule: at Michigan and a homer vs. Texas. It's hard to imagine they'll get back into the top 10 this season.

Is it me, or is this team flying under the radar a little bit? Perhaps it's because Duke is a little bit boring compared to some of the glitzy guys in the top 10, but mostly the low buzz results from the nagging feeling that we've seen this before from Duke -- a talented but soft team whose stellar regular season will be followed by a humbling pre-Elite Eight exit. I disagree, for two reasons. First, this is a bigger, stronger, tougher team than in years past, and that is really manifesting itself at the defensive end. (They're ranked in the top 25 nationally in field goal defense and defensive efficiency.) Moreover, the ACC is not as strong as I thought it would be entering the season. Only four of the league's 12 teams are ranked in this week's top 25, and Duke is the only one that looks like a bona fide national championship contender.

The Gators are not as good as many people (including myself) thought they were after they upset Michigan State in November, but this happens to be a great time to try to buy them. On Saturday they play at Vanderbilt, a team that is not as good as many people seem to think, and on Jan. 12 they get mighty Kentucky at home. That's two good chances to make waves. Tennessee's off-court woes present another opportunity in the SEC East. And you have to like this team's karma coming off that miracle win over N.C. State on Chandler Parsons' 70-foot heave. (Then again, why did they need a miracle to beat a team headed for the ACC's basement?) The ceiling is not very high for Florida because of its lack of toughness and uneven point guard play, but I think the Gators are going to have a pretty good couple of weeks.

I'm still not crazy about the Hoyas' lack of a true point guard, but every team outside the top three has a major deficiency somewhere. The Hoyas have a lofty ranking, but I rated them a buy because I don't think they have generated top-10 buzz. That could change in the next couple of weeks. They play two tough but winnable road games at DePaul and Marquette, followed by a pair of home games against UConn and Seton Hall. Realistically, the Hoyas could be 5-2 in the Big East heading into their big Jan. 25 showdown at Syracuse. I know Greg Monroe will probably never get the respect he deserves as long as he's in college, but this is a very good passing team, and junior guard Chris Wright is really coming into his own as a scorer.

Imagine if Syracuse began Big East play with consecutive road dates at UConn, Georgetown and West Virginia. Or if Kansas started off at Texas, Kansas State and Texas A&M. That's what is now facing the Zags, who in a 10-day span have to play at Portland, at Saint Mary's and at San Diego -- which, combined with their game at Illinois last weekend, puts the Zags into a stretch where they have to play six out of eight games on the road. I imagine they will win enough games to stay in the top 25, but it is treacherous terrain for a team that is getting such meager contributions from its bench. Gonzaga is not quite as talented as it has been the last few years, but it is mentally tougher. That dimension will be severely tested the next few weeks.

It's funny how so many experts seem to be going out of their way to pick another team to win the championship. Sometimes the obvious answer is also the correct one. So jump on the Texas-Kentucky-Syracuse bandwagon if you wish, but I still say the Jayhawks will be hoisting the big trophy on April 5. Yes, I picked them to lose at Temple, and I still say Kansas will not go undefeated. (Nobody will.) But the one thing people underestimate is how much room Kansas still has to get better. Besides the obvious growth that freshman Xavier Henry will make over the next two months, the Morris twins are improving with every game, and freshman forward Thomas Robinson is emerging as an increasingly reliable scorer and rebounder off the bench. And keep in mind that this team just got two additions, guard Brady Morningstar and center Jeff Withey, in December. Bill Self is still figuring out all the right combinations, but nobody has more talent and experience to work with.

For a while I felt like a one-man cheerleading squad for Frank Martin's bunch, but now the word is officially out. So why am I still rating them a buy? In the first place, I'm still not feeling that the Wildcats' buzz is commensurate with their ability, but mostly it's because I like their schedule. Over the next four weeks, K-State will play Kansas, Texas and Texas A&M. Of those three, only Kansas also gets the Wildcats on their home court. Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente form a stellar backcourt duo, but look for the team to make major strides as freshmen Wally Judge and Rodney McGruder get more big-game experience.

This rating might surprise you, but keep in mind that the Wildcats' start includes legitimate scares from Miami (Ohio) and Stanford -- combined record: 9-16. UK's two wins over ranked teams came by a total of five points. I'm not saying Kentucky can't get to the Final Four -- put four schlubs from the Lexington YMCA alongside John Wall and they'd at least reach the Sweet 16 -- but let's just say I'm very curious to see how these young Wildcats hold up against the rigors of league play. It's a little scary that so much of Kentucky's hopes depend on DeMarcus Cousins keeping his composure. Right now the Cats strike me as the kind of team that can win it all or get upset in an early round by a team with less talent but more experience.

One thing that was lost in Saturday's Rumble in Rupp was how hard the Cardinals competed despite a woeful offensive performance. They were on the road against a great team and made just one field goal in the first 14 minutes -- yet they still trailed by just eight points at halftime and never let Kentucky run away. Maybe that's not much to cling to, but I think the Cards grew up in that game -- especially on the defensive end, where they will have to be really good to advance deep into the tournament. Also, keep in mind that Louisville's stock was artificially deflated by their two bad losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina, which were largely the result of injuries. I might have rated the Cards a buy but for the brutal six-game stretch they have coming up beginning next week, which will have them playing on the road at Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and West Virginia before they return home to face UConn on Feb. 1. We'll know a lot more about this team at that point, but for now I'm betting that they will come out of that gauntlet looking rather respectable.

I want to believe that the Terps have another run in them, but after watching them these first two months, I can't see it happening. Maryland has played four tournament-caliber teams during the nonconference season, and they lost all four -- to Cincinnati, Wisconsin and Villanova on neutral courts, and to William & Mary at home. Greivis Vasquez has been fabulous, but the Terps are getting neither the rebounding nor the scoring they were hoping for from their freshman bigs. Maryland also got a bad break on its ACC schedule. The Terps only have to play North Carolina once (and at home), but they get Duke, Clemson and Florida State twice, and their only games against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech are on the road. Looks like the makings of an NIT resume to me.

The dreaded day is fast approaching: Memphis is going to lose a game in Conference USA this season. That said, I still think the Tigers will win the conference and get a decent seed in the tournament, and since they haven't been ranked all season I can't recommend selling them just yet. This team is suffering from a lack of size and depth, which means the Tigers are especially vulnerable should they encounter foul trouble or injury. (Needless to say, they are the worst foul-shooting team in Conference USA.) But they have terrific guard play and are actually shooting a good percentage from three-point range, so there are some good things to build on as they move forward.

Wolverines fans might try to take heart from Michigan's win over Ohio State on Sunday, but I'm afraid that could turn out to be a cruel tease. Wins over the Buckeyes carry an asterisk as long as Evan Turner is out, and the Wolverines' woes on the road are a sign that this is not a tournament team. There is simply no excuse for losing to an Indiana team that was playing its first game after losing its best player, freshman guard Maurice Creek -- and was already pretty bad to begin with. Michigan's two main problems were glaringly evident in that game: They shot 9-for-28 from three-point range (which is poison in John Beilein's three-happy system) and DeShawn Sims, who has underachieved all season, grabbed just three rebounds. The schedule gets brutal later this month, when in succession Michigan will face UConn at home, Wisconsin and Purdue on the road, and Michigan State at home.

At first blush, the Spartans should probably warrant at best a hold, considering that in the four tough games they played outside the conference, they lost all three away from home (Florida, UNC and Texas) and needed to overcome a 10-point second-half deficit to beat Gonzaga in East Lansing. I've rated them a buy because a) I believe those losses sufficiently deflated their stock, and b) Tom Izzo's teams always get better as the season wears on. I think that will be especially true of this group, which is still learning to play small ball and still fashioning its identity. Izzo's public callout of his point guard, Kalin Lucas, shows he's in full button-pushing mode, but given that the Big Ten is not as strong as many predicted, there's every reason to believe this team will challenge for another league title.

This rating might surprise you, but while I don't foresee the Lobos moving into the top 10, I do think they're the best team in the best mid-major conference in America. For a team like New Mexico, getting a high seed is crucial to its chances of winning a game or two in the tournament, and I like the way the Lobos are positioned. Their wins over Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Dayton and even California will look better as the season wears on. If they can get by their Mountain West opener at San Diego State on Tuesday night, they will have four of their next six games at The Pit, including contests against their main rivals in the league, UNLV and BYU. Whereas in the past a weak Mountain West might prevent a team from improving its RPI ranking in January and February, this season the opposite will be true. My prediction: New Mexico will be no lower than a 5-seed on Selection Sunday. That makes them a pretty good stock.

During their two best wins (Ohio State and Michigan State), the Tar Heels showed a maddening tendency to lose big leads. They did the same in Chapel Hill on Dec. 28 during their win over Rutgers, when they allowed the Scarlet Knights to close a 17-point deficit to six in the second half before putting them away. Granted, they were playing without their best defender, Marcus Ginyard, but that is the natural result of a team that is forced to play too many guys with too little experience. Don't get me wrong, the Heels are extremely talented, and I love the progress that freshman guard Dexter Strickland has been making, but right now they strike me as a team that can beat anyone but also lose to someone they shouldn't. I expect them to drop a couple during the first half of ACC play before finding their legs for the stretch run.

This one's a no-brainer. We'll know more about the timetable of Evan Turner's return after he gets an MRI this week, but it is apparent that he will be back sooner than originally anticipated. It will take some time for him to show the form he had before he got hurt, but I think the pollsters (not to mention the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee) will give Ohio State a lot of leeway when judging the games he was out. And even if Turner doesn't play like an All-America, his return will be a huge help if only because it gives the Buckeyes another warm body. Without Turner, Thad Matta is basically left with seven players. The Buckeyes have a rough stretch coming up, which includes a game at West Virginia on Jan. 23, but they have a pretty favorable schedule from there.

I was tempted to rate the Rebels a buy because the SEC West is so weak (again), but then I looked at their schedule. Four of their first six conference games are on the road, and between now and Feb. 2 they have to play at Tennessee and at Kentucky. (They won't face either team in Oxford.) My concern is that Ole Miss' inexperience and suspect defense and rebounding will get exposed in those hostile environments. If they can survive January in one piece, I believe they will finish strong and make the NCAA tournament, but given their ranking (which relies mostly on their lone resume win over Kansas State), I don't foresee the Rebels rising any higher in the foreseeable future.

When I picked my Final Four (first version) on CBS last month, I struggled with my decision over whether to make Purdue or West Virginia my fourth team. I went with the Mountaineers, and if you saw the game between those teams last Thursday, you know I picked the wrong team. I keep hearing people knock the Boilermakers' talent, but in Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, they have three players who will have a very good chance to play in the NBA. Not many teams can say that. Moreover, this is a tough, smart, efficient, well-drilled defensive unit, spearheaded by Chris Kramer, who is arguably the best on-ball defender in the nation. Purdue is ranked 8th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and I believe (for now at least) that that will carry them all the way to Indianapolis.

Yes, Malik Boothe was hurt on Sunday against Providence, but a good team should still beat a mediocre one at home, even without its starting point guard. The Red Storm simply do not have enough size to be a top-tier Big East squad. Nor will Anthony Mason Jr.'s return from injury be any kind of elixir -- in fact, it could disrupt the team's chemistry. We know the Red Storm will play as hard as any team they face, which is why they will win a game or two they shouldn't. But they will also fail to win games they will need to feel secure on Selection Sunday. At best, it's a coin flip whether this team will make the tourney. I would never ask you to buy a stock based on a coin flip.

I can't say I was overly concerned by the Orange's loss to Pittsburgh at home. Neither, apparently, were my fellow voters, who only dropped them two spots this week. At least the 'Cuse played terribly in the game; if they had played well and still lost, that would be more of a problem. The fact is, the Orange are excelling at every position (including point guard, which was the biggest question entering the season) and at both ends. They're ranked in the top 10 in the nation in points, assists and field goal percentage as well as steals, defensive field goal percentage and defensive efficiency. What's more, they have a terrific schedule coming up. Their most dangerous game is Jan. 16 at West Virginia, but besides that they don't play another road game against a ranked team until Feb. 18 at Georgetown. If they take care of business and reach the finals of the Big East tournament, the Orange will have an excellent chance at a No. 1 seed.

Yes, Temple knocked of Villanova at home, but remember, the Wildcats were still without their two best big men, Reggie Redding and Mouphtaou Yarou. And while there's no shame in losing to top-ranked Kansas (even at home), that 32-point shellacking makes me wonder if Temple is really top 25-worthy. I was considering rating the Owls a sell because this is going to be the strongest Atlantic 10 in years, but it turns out they will only have to play the two co-favorites, Dayton and Xavier, once each, and both of those games are at home. Temple might have nowhere to go but down, but for the time being I don't see them falling very far.

I was considering giving the Vols this rating even before the New Year's Eve arrests of four of their top eight players. That development made it an easy call. Regardless of how Bruce Pearl chooses to proceed, the episode is a devastating blow to a team that already had nagging questions about its point guard play. Even while UT was notching its biggest win of the season at Memphis last week, its starting point guard, Bobby Maze, had zero assists and shot 1-for-6 from the field. His backup, Melvin Goins, had one assist and two turnovers in 14 minutes. The team was able to make up for that because senior forward Tyler Smith is such a good playmaker, but there is only so far a team can go without a top-flight point guard. And since Smith was one of the four arrested players (as was Goins), the Vols will not be able to use their greatest asset for the foreseeable future.

The Longhorns' poor free-throw shooting is going to be a nagging storyline all season, but in the meantime that is just picking at nits. This is the best defensive team in the country, and you can see steady improvement with the freshmen each time out. I also like the way Texas' schedule breaks in their favor. The biggest road bump comes when they have back-to-back road games at Kansas State and Connecticut in two weeks, but they only have to play Kansas once, and that game is in Austin. I also like that this team is not overly reliant on making three-pointers. That means they are less vulnerable if they have an off shooting night.

The Wildcats caught a major break last week when they were able to announce that freshman center Mouphtaou Yarou was cleared to play. When Yarou was originally diagnosed with Hepatitis B, it looked like he might be lost for the season. We'll have to wait to assess just how good Villanova is, but make no mistake: Yarou was a major reason why so many people were bullish on this team in the preseason. As my colleague Luke Winn pointed out last week, 'Nova was ranked 95th nationally in defensive efficiency during the nonconference season. I still see them as a potential Sweet Sixteen team, but their record and ranking indicates they should have a good chance at another Final Four run, and right now I have a hard time seeing that happening.

The Huskies could very well end up winning the Pac-10. That plus $2.25 will get them a ride on the New York City subway. A team that loses by 11 points at home to unranked Oregon does not strike me as a team with Sweet Sixteen potential. (Yes, I know Syracuse lost at home to unranked Pittsburgh. Apples and oranges, my friends.) Washington's lone significant win came at home against Texas A&M in the game in which Aggies guard Derrick Roland gruesomely broke his leg. The Huskies have been playing some pretty decent defense, but aside from Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter they are not getting nearly enough scoring when they really need it. If they were unranked and unnoticed I might recommend you hold them until they get a few more league games under their belt, but I can't help but believe this team has gone as high in the rankings as it will go.

The Mountaineers finally ran out of lives on Friday when they got blitzed at Purdue, but since that was a road game against a higher-ranked team, it did not adequately deflate West Virginia's stock. The Mountaineers needed not one but three great escapes to stay undefeated during their first 11 games, including when they blew a 17-point second-half lead to win by two against a Cleveland State that has a 5-10 record. Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks are marvelous talents who have done a terrific job filling in at point guard, but using smoke, mirrors and duct tape is no way to fill the most important position on the floor. I still expect West Virginia to contend for a Big East title, and if their regular point guard, Joe Mazzulla, gets healthy, I'll be happy to upgrade their stock down the road. As it stands, this team has maxed out its market value. It won't fall far, but it has nowhere to go but down.

Not only is this a great stock, it's a great time to buy it. The Badgers play at Michigan State on Wednesday and then face Purdue at home on January 9. That's a great opportunity for them to knock off one of the last remaining undefeated teams, but even if they lose those two games their stock price won't take a hit. Wisconsin is going to be the main benefactor of the surprising weakness of this league. They have already knocked off Duke and Ohio State at home, and their nine-point win over Marquette last month looks even better in retrospect. This is another classic Bo Ryan team -- no superstars, just solid, smart, strong, tough veterans who know how to play Bo ball. They're ranked 10th in the U.S. in offensive efficiency and lead the Big Ten in fewest points allowed. You won't get rich buying Wisconsin, but you'll never go broke.

William & Mary (10-2): Since dropping their first two games, the Tribe, who boast a bevy of excellent three-point shooters, have won 10 in a row, including two league road games by one point each.

Northern Iowa (12-1): I'm still not sure how good the Missouri Valley is, but I'm pretty confident the Panthers are the best team in it. This is a big week for them as they hit the road to play Southern Illinois and Illinois State.

BYU (14-1, No. 25): Jimmer Fredette is a superb setup man (5.6 assists per game), and his 49-point explosion at Arizona ranks as the single best individual performance of the season.

Saint Mary's (13-2): No Patty Mills? No problem. The Gaels have plenty of Aussies to surround superstud post man Omar Samhan, but they still lack a quality win. They'll have a great chance to get one when they host Gonzaga on Jan. 14.

Virginia Tech (12-1): The Hokies just beat Seton Hall in Cancun, Mexico, with their best player, Malcolm Delaney, sidelined with an ankle injury. Delaney should be back in the next week or two, which will give him plenty of time to spur Virginia Tech to just its second NCAA tournament bid in the last 14 years.

Oklahoma (8-5): The Sooners looked like they had righted the ship with six-game win streak, but after getting walloped by UTEP and Gonzaga by a combined 29 points, they are once again listing badly. The good news is Willie Warren will have to come back next season, if he's smart enough to realize it.

Fordham (2-10) and Penn (0-8): They deserve to have horrible records next year, too, for firing their coaches during the season.

Arkansas (7-7): Suspensions, shoddy perimeter defense and bad luck are no way to go through life, son.

Iowa (5-9): It's rare to see a team from a power conference emerge from nonconference play two games under .500. I'd say there's a 50-50 chance the Hawkeyes will not win a game in the Big Ten this season.

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