You can feel it, can't you? A new year. A new belief. A new chance for your team to be this year's VCU, or this year's UConn, or this year's ... well, your team.
Yet, you are not just a fan. You are a savvy shopper. You know that numbers can lie. Sure, a team might have a nice won-loss record, a lofty ranking, but what does that really mean? You want to look closer. You want to see into the future. You want the proper knowledge, the proper perspective, the proper clairvoyance to invest wisely.
In other words, you want the Hoop Thoughts Stock Report.
It is a glorious tradition. Every year, as the calendar turns from December (cupcake fakery) to January (conference road games that reveal the truth), I have broken down the entire landscape of college basketball to tell you who's headed up, who's headed down, and who's holding steady. I have assessed each team's stock "price" based on its record, its ranking, and that hard-to-define category called "buzz." Buzz is something you can only feel, not quantify. But it's the driving force behind the manner in which everyone is "valued."
The HTSR's logic is twisted. The better your team is, the higher it is ranked, the more likely I am to rate it as a Sell. I'm looking for bargains, not affirmations. Once again, I sat down to craft this report in a surly, discriminating mood, but it turns out I am more bullish than I thought. Of the 40 teams that I assessed, I rated 20 as Buys. I rated 13 as Sells and seven as Holds. I also added 10 sleeper stocks plus five that you should dump. That's a grand total of 55 teams, a record high. You get your money's worth from me.
So I hope you've got some cash left over from the holidays, because those Benjamins are ready to go to work. (And I don't just mean Wisconsin guard Ben Brust.) For all you hoopheads who are so invested in our beautiful game, I present to you the 2012 Hoop Thoughts Stock Report. Read it carefully, friends. It will yield you dividends.
ARIZONA (10-4): BUY
When projecting a stock's value, I tend to favor teams with talented, young players. The Wildcats have a number of those, beginning with 6-foot-2 freshman guard Nick Johnson. His more heralded freshman teammate, point guard Josiah Turner, has been a big disappointment, and I don't expect a lot of improvement from him. But at least he's starting to contribute off the bench. Moreover, 6-6 junior swingman Kevin Parrom is still not the same player he was before sustaining a gunshot wound last fall. And yet, the Pac 12 is so weak that the Wildcats could very well win the thing. Their price isn't all that high now, so you might as well take a flyer.
BAYLOR (13-0, No. 4): HOLD
This rating may surprise you considering how bullish I've been on Baylor from the start. Such is the nature of the HTSR. The fact that I have left the Bears as a Hold indicates that I don't think they are quite generating the buzz you'd expect given their record and ranking. True, they won't go undefeated, thanks partly to Perry Jones's mystifying reticence to assert himself in the post. But I do like the stable of guards Scott Drew has assembled. I also see upside in the projected improvement of freshman forward Quincy Miller, who has given this team nothing the last three weeks.
BUTLER (8-7): BUY
Anybody else getting a sense of d�j� vu all over again? Last year at this time, the Bulldogs were 10-5, had just lost at Milwaukee by 24 points, and were two weeks away from a miserable stretch that saw them lose four out of five games. We all know where they ended up. I'm not saying Butler will be back in the championship game, but given this team's record (e.g. cheap price) it's well worth the risk of buying this stock. In erasing a 13-point deficit to beat Purdue and a seven-point deficit to win at Stanford, Butler showed flashes of its old March magic. This team still might need to win the Horizon League tournament to get an NCAA bid, but would you bet your house against the Bulldogs doing just that? Neither would I.
CALIFORNIA (12-3): BUY
The Bears will probably win the Pac 12 for the simple reason that someone has to. True, they've gone oh-for-three in statement games (Missouri in Kansas City, plus road games at San Diego State and UNLV), but at least they have beaten all the teams they should have. Senior center Harper Kamp is finally healthy, sophomore guard Allen Crabbe is coming into his own, and senior guard Jorge Gutierrez is one of the top glue guys in America. In most years, that would make Cal a respectable bubble team at best. In this year, in this conference, it makes them a good buy.
CONNECTICUT (12-1, No. 8): BUY
Despite its rank, its record, and its status as the reigning NCAA champion, I'm not sensing much buzz around these Huskies. That's probably due to their nondescript nonconference schedule, but with the Big East about to ramp up things will change. Their toughest gauntlet doesn't arrive until February, which means the Huskies' two promising freshmen, point guard Ryan Boatright and center Andre Drummond, have time to get their feet wet. By the time March rolls around, those two will be much-improved, and UConn will be poised to make another run at the big trophy.
CREIGHTON (11-2): BUY
The Bluejays learned something important last week. As good as Doug McDermott is, they're better when wielding a balanced attack. McDermott contributed 19 points and 12 rebounds in the loss at home to Missouri State, yet he had a more modest 12 and 7 in the comeback win at Wichita State on Saturday. (And beating Wichita State on the road is a lot harder than beating Missouri State at home.) That tells me Creighton will continue to find ways to get better. Playing in the best Missouri Valley Conference in years will help.
DUKE (12-1, No. 5): HOLD
My take on the Blue Devils: I'm impressed but not excited. Because the ACC is so weak, Duke will likely be in the top 10 all season. To rank them as a Buy, however, I'd have to believe they belong on the first tier with Syracuse, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio State -- and I don't. Mason Plumlee has come a long way, and the lack of a true point guard doesn't bother me as much as some people (Jon Scheyer, anyone?). Instead, what nags at me most is the apparent lack of leadership. Seth Curry has the ball in his hands the most, but he seems to have a diffident personality. Freshman Austin Rivers is the most talented, but he's still figuring out how to play, much less lead. I'll be watching the Blue Devils with great interest the next two months, but I'm keeping my expectations modest.
FLORIDA (11-3, No. 13): BUY
This is a really good time to buy the Gators because they're coming off that loss at Rutgers. People are just waiting to cast doubts, but I have been consistently ranking Florida ahead of where it ended up in the polls. Yes, guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton can drive you crazy with their shot selection, but I think Florida is actually stronger up front than it was last season, when the Gators lost in overtime in the Elite Eight to Butler. They also have a lot of room to get better. Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario is still recovering from a back injury that forced him to miss two games, and freshman Bradley Beal is a monster talent finding his way. Make no mistake, this team has the chops to make it to New Orleans. I say scoop 'em up while their stock still has a little upside.
GEORGETOWN (12-1, No. 9): SELL
I like the Hoyas, but really, how much better can things get? They scored one of the best road wins you'll see all season at Louisville, but then they struggled to get by a woeful Providence team at home three days later. That served as a reminder that these aren't robots, they're college kids. As I said before, I usually like to recommend you buy teams with promising freshmen, but while 6-8 forward Otto Porter is proving to be a consistent rebounder, he's at least a year away from becoming a dependable scorer.
HARVARD (12-1, No. 22): BUY
If you're waiting for the Crimson to plummet, you're going to be waiting a while. This team is no fluke. It came within a desperation, fallaway three-pointer from making the NCAA tournament last year, and it returned its roster virtually intact. Led by the experienced and efficient frontcourt tandem of Keith Wright and Kyle Casey, Harvard proved in wins over Florida State and Saint Joseph's that it can beat NCAA tournament-caliber teams. Even its loss at UConn by 14 points on Dec. 8 was a lot closer than the final score indicated. Finally, it's very likely that Harvard will not lose a game inside the Ivy League, which means it will enter the NCAA tournament ranked in the top 20 with only one loss. Doesn't that sound like a good stock to you?
ILLINOIS (12-3): SELL
When I saw the Illini beat Gonzaga at home in early December, I thought this team was ready to be a contender. They have since proved me wrong. Illinois has now lost three of its last five, including two by big margins against UNLV (16 points) and Purdue (15). They also needed overtime to beat Minnesota at home. One thing that has gotten exposed is point guard play. Sam Maniscalco, the transfer from Bradley, was a nice pickup, but when the level of competition steps up he gets exposed. In addition, Meyers Leonard continues to spend way too much time away from the basket. The Illini will get a win or two this season that will make people think this team is better than they really are. I recommend you sell them now and save yourself the trouble.
INDIANA (13-1, No. 12): BUY
This should be a classic sell. Young team gets hot, scores a couple of huge upset and blasts up the rankings, leaving them nowhere to go but down. I don't care. I'm all in on the Hoosiers, and you should be too. The only thing more impressive than IU's success this season is how these young players have handled it. Many teams with more "maturity" would have been ruined by the win over Kentucky, but Indiana responded by gritting out an ugly win over Notre Dame, fighting Michigan State hard in East Lansing before losing, and then beating the Buckeyes at home on Saturday. Yes, Indiana will lose a few in the tough Big Ten, but Tom Crean has built this program to last. By March, the Hoosiers will be battle-tested and ready to do some damage.
KANSAS (10-3, No. 14): SELL
If you believe that guard play is paramount in college basketball, you've got to sell Kansas. The fact that the Jayhawks are ranked this high despite having three losses (including a de facto home loss in Kansas City to Davidson) tells you that their buzz is exceeding their play. Yes, it is impressive that Tyshawn Taylor can play through so much pain after undergoing knee surgery, but his spotty decision-making, and that of his backcourtmate Elijah Johnson, is a problem that is not going to go away.
KANSAS STATE (11-1, No. 23): HOLD
I was ready to rate the Wildcats a Buy until I looked at their upcoming schedule. Rut roh: They open Big 12 play on Wednesday at Kansas, followed by home games against Missouri and Baylor, followed by four of the next six on the road. Still, I think Kansas State will emerge from that gauntlet as a tougher, stronger team that will be a tough out in the tournament. Like many people, I expected the Wildcats to take a step back following the graduation of Jacob Pullen, but instead they have came back with a more effective, balanced attack. K State's top four scorers are all averaging between eight and 13 points per game, and I love the development of 6-3 sophomore Will Spradling at the point.
KENTUCKY (13-1, No. 2): BUY
I was considering rating Kentucky a Sell, or at least a Hold, before their game against Louisville. They're riding sky high right now, and it's hard to really love a team with a freshman point guard (Marquis Teague is not as fast as John Wall and not as savvy as Brandon Knight). Still, the talent on this roster is just too overwhelming. The two freshmen who dominated the Cardinals, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis, are only going to get better, and Terrence Jones can't possibly be this bad. (Can he?) And don't look now, but this is the best defensive team John Calipari has had in a long while, maybe ever.
LOUISVILLE (12-2, No. 11): SELL
Hopefully, you were smart enough to sell the Cardinals last week when they were undefeated and ranked No. 4. Their losses to Georgetown and Kentucky corrected their stock price, but I'm afraid this team has more to fall before it rises again. Five of Louisville's first seven Big East games will be on the road, and the Cards have to play Syracuse twice in February. The Cardinals will get better because a) they are still getting healthy, and b) Rick Pitino is their coach. But we learned last week that this is not a top-five, or even a top-10, caliber team in terms of talent. They are going to have to scratch and claw the rest of the way.
MARQUETTE (12-2, No. 20): SELL
This rating owes more to timing than anything else. The Golden Eagles' two games this week are on the road against Syracuse and Georgetown, and I can't recommend that you buy a team that could very well lose two straight (which would make a total of four out of six). However, if you want to take a chance and buy Marquette right before its home game against Louisville Jan. 16, I won't talk you out of it. Unfortunately, the Golden Eagles were already a small team before they lost starting center Chris Otule to an ACL injury. There's an outside chance Otule could come back, but even if he does it will be too late to make much difference.
MARYLAND (9-3): BUY
If nothing else, you won't lose much dough if this pick bombs. The Terps haven't played horribly; they were competitive with Illinois before losing by nine, they beat Notre Dame by seven, and they're riding a six-game win streak (albeit against bad teams). But the real reason to buy this stock is the fact that Maryland just added two important pieces. Pe'Shon Howard, a 6-3 sophomore point guard who burst out of the gate as a freshman last year before fizzling, returned to the lineup on Dec. 23. (He missed the first nine games because of a foot injury.) An even more intriguing addition is Alex Len, a 7-1 freshman center who just finished serving an NCAA suspension for violating amateurism guidelines while playing in his native Ukraine. Most people probably don't realize that Maryland guard Terrell Stoglin is ranked sixth in the country in scoring (21.8 ppg). I'm sure the extra weapons will make Mark Turgeon's team more formidable in a weak ACC.
MICHIGAN (12-2, No. 16): BUY
This is more of a long-term play. John Beilein's offensive system is so intricate and precise that unless a team is used to it, it's nearly impossible to defend. And if we follow our look-for-the-rising-freshman strategy, then we need look no further than Trey Burke, who hung 27 points on Minnesota in Sunday's win. I'm sure the Wolverines will lose their share of Big Ten games, and they may drop out of the rankings for a time, but by the time March rolls around nobody is going to want to play them. Again.
MICHIGAN STATE (13-2, No. 10): HOLD
There is not much upside to this stock following the Spartans' win over Indiana last week, but I like Michigan State and think it will continue to improve. Michigan State's biggest concern coming into the season was point guard play, but 6-1 sophomore Keith Appling, who was forced into the role by the departure of Korie Lucious, turned in a brilliant 25-point, seven-assist performance against the Hoosiers. The Spartans' two freshmen, Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, will both get a lot better. Moreover, Michigan State doesn't have to play Ohio State until February. So even if the Spartans' stock price can't go much higher, it also won't go any lower for a while.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (13-2, No. 15): HOLD
The Bulldogs are who we think they are. Dee Bost is a gritty, experienced floor leader who can shoot his team in and out of games. Renardo Sidney is a gifted, enigmatic center who is trying real hard to smooth his rough edges. UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie is a defensive stalwart. Rodney Hood and Jalen Steele are good players who play like they're young. Mississippi State will finish between second and fifth in the SEC, no higher, no lower. A good team, not a great one, but one that with a little bit of luck could make a run in March.
MISSOURI (13-0, No. 7): SELL
I love watching this team play, but let's be honest, this is an easy call. Unless you think the Tigers are going to run the table, you have to sell them. Missouri has shot the ball extremely well so far, but the Tigers have very little height and even less depth. That is going to bite them in the rear end at some point. And as impressive as Missouri has been, it's worth nothing that none of its wins have come against teams currently ranked in the top 25. Moreover, four of the Tigers' first seven Big 12 games will be on the road (including tough tests at Kansas State and Baylor). Inevitably the Tigers are going to have some bad shooting nights, whereupon their ranking will fall and their stock price will correct. So cash out now while you still can.
MURRAY STATE (14-0, No. 19): BUY
Some teams climb up the rankings because they knock off good teams. Others benefit from losses suffered by teams ranked above them. The Racers are officially in the latter category. Make no mistake, this is a good team (the top eight players are juniors and seniors), but Murray State's best win to date came by four points at Memphis, which didn't deserve to be ranked at the time. And yet, Murray State is the only team in the Ohio Valley Conference that is ranked in the top 190 -- yes, 190 -- of the RPI. I'm sure someone will beat the Racers at some point, but it may be a while. If they become (as I suspect) the last undefeated team in America, their buzz will be off the charts. So buy them now, and then you can sell them as soon they drop their first game. You won't be sorry.
NORTH CAROLINA (13-2, No. 3): BUY
If the Tar Heels were undefeated, or if they had at least beaten Kentucky, it would have been harder to rate them a Buy. (I still don't know why they stopped playing those last six seconds.) Even with their gaudy record and lofty ranking, I see two areas of upside for North Carolina. The first is freshmen James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston. Those guys have oodles of talent and I expect them to get a lot better, fast. The second is the overall weakness of the ACC. If the Tar Heels only lose one or two games, there's a good chance they'll go into the NCAA tournament as a number one seed. If that's the case, your investment will have paid off.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE (10-4): SELL
The good news for the Wolfpack is that sophomore C.J. Leslie has made some nice strides (especially with his shooting), and Mark Gottfried is making some headway on the recruiting trail. That might make N.C. State a good futures bet, but for the near term this is not a stock worth buying. The Wolfpack has teased fans by playing well against some good teams, but save for a three-point win over a floundering Texas squad, they lost all of them. Plus, they needed a last-second bucket from Leslie to beat St. Bonaventure. The ACC is bad, but it's not bad enough for N.C. State to make the tournament. Maybe next year.
OHIO STATE (13-2, No.6): BUY
During my season outlook segment on CBS last month, I predicted that North Carolina would win the national championship. I now wish I had predicted the Buckeyes -- and no, the loss at Indiana didn't change my mind. The two most important positions on the court are point guard and center, and the Buckeyes have the best player in the country at each spot. I also like the way Deshaun Thomas and Evan Ravenel stepped up their games while Sullinger was nursing injuries. And for all the hand-wringing about Thad Matta's inability to develop his bench, I think that this is a good thing. A short bench means good chemistry. Every gets minutes and everybody gets shots. And keep in mind the Buckeyes recently added their top freshman recruit, LaQuinton Ross, who so far has given them zilch. Ohio State will surely get clipped again, but as long as it remains healthy, this will be the team to beat in the 2012 NCAA tournament.
PITTSBURGH (11-4): SELL
We just got to January, and already this season has been a disaster for Pitt. Sunday's loss to a Cincinnati team that is still without its best player, Yancy Gates, was the Panthers' third defeat in a row. They also lost two nonconference games at home (Long Beach State and Wagner). Pitt's three-point shooting has been horrendous, but that is largely the result of a lack of post scoring, a problem that was only exacerbated by freshman forward Khem Birch's surprising decision to transfer. Junior point guard Tray Woodall just returned from a monthlong absence due to an abdominal injury, so there is reason to believe the team will get better in the coming weeks, but it will have to do so against an unforgiving Big East schedule. After the Panthers play DePaul and Rutgers, their next six games are: at Marquette, at Syracuse, vs. Louisville, vs. Providence, vs. Georgetown, and at West Virginia. So it's conceivable they could go into February two games under .500 in Big East play. Ouch.
PURDUE (12-3): SELL
I want to like the Boilermakers, but it's hard to get those late collapses against Xavier and Butler out of my mind. I think Purdue will be in the NCAA tournament, but first it's going to have to navigate a tough beginning to its Big Ten schedule. Over the next five weeks the Boilermakers will play road games at Minnesota, Michigan State and Ohio State, and play at home against Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. That doesn't leave much room for error. It wouldn't be totally foolish to hold onto their stock for now, but I think the smarter play is to dump Purdue and then scoop it back up in February when you can get a better bargain.
SAINT LOUIS (12-2): SELL
If you haven't seen the Billikens yet, check 'em out. They play smart, efficient, patient, team-oriented basketball. They take good shots and make a high percentage. But ask yourself this: Would people be talking about them so much if their coach weren't so famous and colorful? Then again, if Rick Majerus weren't there, they probably wouldn't be this much fun to watch. At any rate, those wins over Washington (at home) and Villanova (neutral court) don't look nearly as impressive now as they did back in November. Saint Louis had a chance to make a statement on the road against a good-but-not-great New Mexico team, and it lost by four. That tells me this team is not as its current reputation.
SAN DIEGO STATE (12-2, No. 24): SELL
It wouldn't surprise me to see the Aztecs return to the NCAA tournament -- which would be impressive considering what they lost from last year -- but I still think they're overvalued. Even if you set aside their two losses (to Creighton at home after leading by 17, at Baylor by 10 points when the Bears didn't have Perry Jones III), many of their wins failed to inspire confidence. They beat USC and Cal at home by a combined three points, and they needed overtime to beat Long Beach State at home and UC Riverside on the road. Those results, combined with upcoming games against UNLV and at New Mexico, make this a good time to sell.
SYRACUSE (15-0, No. 1): BUY
I was tempted to rate the Orange a Sell based on the nowhere-to-go-but-down theory, but as I looked at their Big East schedule, it was hard to pick a game they should lose until the middle of February. It speaks volumes about this team's collection of talent that its most talented player, sophomore guard Dion Waiters, is not even a starter. Yes, this team has a few warts (free throw shooting chief among them) but who doesn't? Syracuse is probably going to be a number one seed, and teams who aren't used to going up against that zone will have a hard time beating it in the tournament.
TEXAS (10-3): SELL
If you've held onto the Longhorns this long, you probably deserve to lose at least part of your shirt. I warned you in my preseason postcard that the Longhorns were too young to make waves (though I thought they'd be better than this). They suffered bad losses to Oregon State and N.C. State, and they were embarrassed by 19 points at North Carolina. Freshman point guard Myck Kabongo is taking longer to grasp his role than anticipated, and he isn't getting much help from his friends. There is still some hope here -- that win at home over Temple was nice, and J'Covan Brown is always going to give them a puncher's chance -- but for Texas, the real purpose of this year is to be a better team next year.
UCLA (7-7): SELL
The Bruins had a golden opportunity to steal a win at Stanford last Thursday night, but even though they had 13 opportunities to take a lead, they never did it once. That, however, didn't bother me as much as the way they got run out of the gym two nights later at California. We can't blame Reeves Nelson for UCLA's troubles anymore. The fact is, this team's guards simply are not good enough to lead this to the NCAA tournament. I'm not yet ready to call the season a lost cause for UCLA, but I don't see any signs that a turnaround is in the offing.
UNLV (15-2, No. 17): BUY
I like this team. The Runnin' Rebels are experienced, they're tough, and they have a matchup from hell in 6-8 sophomore forward Mike Moser, who is ranked 12th in the country in rebounding but has also made 18 three-pointers. They lead the Mountain West in both steals and blocks, so that tells you they can play some serious D inside and out. Moreover, I'm not sure the Mountain West is as good as people think (especially since BYU is no longer in the league). So there's a good chance UNLV can still move up in the rankings.
VANDERBILT (9-4): BUY
The Commodores finally looked like the team they were projected to be when they blitzed Marquette by 17 points in Milwaukee last week. Senior center Festus Ezeli, who has missed most of the season because of a knee injury, played in that game and did about as much harm (six turnovers) as good (seven rebounds). But his return, and anticipated improvement, should help the Commodores acquire a toughness that is commensurate with their offensive talent. This team's basic DNA is not going to change all that much, but I do think they've turned a corner. Given the way their stock price has taken a beating, that makes them a pretty good buy.
VILLANOVA (7-7): BUY
I consider myself a savvy bargain hunter. The entire world has flushed Villanova (with good reason), but I still see some nice pieces on this team. Maalik Wayns has to learn to play like a point guard instead of a shooting guard who happens to be playing the point. When and if that happens, 'Nova could take off. Though the Wildcats have gotten off to a rough start inside the Big East with road losses to West Virginia and Marquette, four of their next five games are at home (although one is against Syracuse). Since the Big East is not as deep as it has been the last couple of years, I could envision 'Nova stringing together enough wins to get into the tournament.
VIRGINIA (12-1, No. 21): HOLD
Do I think Virginia is a Final Four team? No. But the Cavs are one of the top four teams in the ACC, and while that's not saying much this season, that should allow them to hold their status as a borderline top 25 team. The Cavaliers don't play the most exciting style of basketball, but they're very good at holding down the tempo and making life uncomfortable for opponents. (They're giving up just 51.1 points per game, third-lowest in the nation.) Virginia only has nine scholarship players following two recent transfers, but it still has a solid inside-outside duo in Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski. So the Cavs will win a lot and lose a few, but in the end they should make the tournament for the first time in five years.
WASHINGTON (8-5): BUY
One of the many unfortunate side effects of the Pac 12's expansion was the elimination of the true round robin schedule. Washington, however, reaped the biggest benefit because it does not have to make a road trip to the Bay Area. Even though this has been one of the most disappointing teams in the country, I'm recommending a Buy because of the weakness of the Pac 12, because shot blocker Aziz N'Diaye has returned from a knee injury, because freshman point guard Tony Wroten is a star in the making, and because at some point Abdul Gaddy is going to remember that he's actually a good basketball player. Nobody else seems to think Washington has a chance to be good, so even if this bet goes belly up you won't lose a lot of dough.
WISCONSIN (12-3, No. 18) HOLD
I probably should recommend that you sell Wisconsin after Saturday's loss at home to Iowa, but as long as Bo Ryan is on the sidelines, you're not going to get hurt too badly holding out some hope. The Badgers shot 3 for 28 from three-point land against the Hawkeyes, but they have been a pretty good three-point shooting team thus far (they're ranked second in the Big Ten in three-point percentage), so I don't expect that to happen often -- especially at home. Wisconsin has a tough stretch coming up beginning this week at home against Michigan State, followed by road dates in three of their following five (Michigan, Purdue and Illinois). So the Badgers are going to be down for a little while, but it would be foolish to count them out.
XAVIER (9-4) BUY
Talk about your basement bargains. Contrary to recent evidence, the Musketeers did not suddenly forget how to play basketball. They were simply thrown off stride -- mentally, physically, every which way -- by that ugly brawl with Cincinnati. The problem is that so much of Xavier's personality was built around toughness and its willingness to fight. They took those concepts too far against the Bearcats, and now they're having a hard time re-establishing the proper equilibrium. However, conference play is getting under way, and I think Xavier will regain its stride. Remember, this is a down year in the Atlantic 10, and it's a long road from here to the tournament.
Belmont (9-5). Bruins have been disappointing during nonconference play, but that largely resulted from their tough schedule. They're still the class of the Atlantic Sun and have NCAA tourney experience.
Charleston (10-3). Bobby Cremins has a team that could play in the school's first NCAA tournament since 1999. The Cougars beat Tennessee at home and nearly knocked off Louisville on the road.
Indiana State (10-3). Sycamores have a real stud in sophomore point guard Jake Odum, and they will benefit from the Missouri Valley's overall depth. If they're on the bubble for an at-large, that road win over Vanderbilt is gonna be huuuuuuge.
Iona (10-3). Gaels' loss at Hofstra last week put them further out of at-large range. But with the nation's assist leader, Scott Machado, at the helm, they remain the favorite to win the MAAC.
Marshall (9-4). Gave Syracuse all it wanted in the Carrier Dome. Herd has dynamic guards in DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts, plus ranked second in the nation in rebound margin.
Middle Tennessee (13-2). Beat Loyola Marymout and UCLA on the road as well as Belmont at home.
Ohio (12-1). Bobcats have three quality road wins at Marshall, Oakland and Northern Iowa, and they fought hard at Louisville before succumbing by five. Junior point guard D.J. Cooper is a demon on both ends of the floor.
Saint Mary's (13-2). The Gaels served notice with pasting of BYU that they are an NCAA tournament caliber team -- again. Matthew Dellavedova is one of the top point guards out west.
Southern Miss (13-2). It only took him eight years, but Larry Eustachy finally has a team that is good enough to win Conference USA. The Golden Eagles' nonconference schedule was weak, but they nearly knocked off Murray State at home before losing in double overtime.
Weber State (10-3). All three losses were on the road to good teams (Saint Mary's, BYU, California). Wildcats boast the nation's leading scorer in 6-3 junior guard Damian Lillard, who also ranks in the top 10 in the Big Sky in assists and rebounds.
Arizona State (4-9). Herb Sendek's top recruit, point guard Jahil Carson, was declared academically ineligible, but that's no excuse for this record.
Boston College (5-8). Steve Donahue left a Cornell that reached the Sweet 16. Last week his ACC club lost to Harvard by 21 points. Remind me again what was so bad about Al Skinner?
Rhode Island (2-12). As if losing wasn't bad enough, Jim Baron announced last week that leading scorer Jamal Wilson has been suspended indefinitely for breaking team rules. At least Baron won't have to sweat out Selection Sunday this year.
Utah (3-10). This is hands down the worst power conference team in America. First-year coach Larry Krystkowiak has some good players coming in, but this is going to be a long rebuilding process.
Wake Forest (9-4). Don't be deceived by the won-loss record. The Deacons lost by 28 points to Arizona State on a neutral court and squeaked Yale by a single point at home last week. I'll say it for the thousandth time: This is the karma you get for firing coach Dino Gaudio after he took his team to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Ball don't lie.