Annual Stock Report: Buy UNC and Kentucky, sell UConn and Purdue
The holidays may be over, but that doesn't mean you have to stop unwrapping presents. And there's no better way to ring in the New Year than by reading the annual Hoop Thoughts Stock Report. Who's headed up? Who's headed down? Everything you need to know about where (and where not) to invest is right here.
Longtime readers of this space know all about the HTSR -- indeed, you've probably been waiting breathlessly for it for weeks -- but for the uninitiated, allow me to explain. The ratings below are meant to assess where a team's stock is headed relative to where it is today. The "price" is measured by records and rankings, which are provided below, as well as that hard-to-measure-but-you-know-it-when-you-see-it factor called buzz. This year, I assigned ratings to a record 40 teams, and I've added my usual five sleepers and five duds to dump. That means a total of 50 "stocks" have been assessed.
Though I like to think of myself as being a discriminating shopper, it turns out I'm in a spending kind of mood. Of the 40 teams listed below, I've rated 18 as Buys (including one Buy-Plus), 10 as Sells and 12 as Holds. This may not be quite a booming bull market, but there's still plenty of room for growth.
Because the purpose of this exercise is to predict direction, it yields a twisted logic. The higher a team is ranked, the less likely I am to rate it a Buy, because it doesn't have as much potential to move up. If a team is ranked low, or not ranked at all, I'm more likely to rate it a Buy, because even if it doesn't appreciate you haven't lost much "money" by purchasing it. In other words, just because I rate one team a Buy and another a Sell, it doesn't necessarily mean I think the first team is better. Got it?
Of course you do. You are a devoted hoophead. You get me. And your loyalty is about to yield some major dividends. So without further ado, I present 2011 Hoop Thoughts Stock Report.
I was ready to rate Arizona a Buy, but I downgraded them after the Wildcast lost at Oregon State Sunday night. Still, the Pac-10's reputation has gotten so bad that I think a lot of its stocks have become deflated. Arizona is a prime example. The Wildcats haven't beaten anyone significant, but both of their losses were to good teams (Kansas on a neutral court and BYU on the road). Arizona's guards are just OK (they turn it over too much and don't create enough steals), but this team has a potential lottery pick in sophomore forward Derrick Williams. The Pac-10 will be the primary beneficiary of the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 68 teams. If Arizona is in the field, this will turn out to be a smart purchase.
Scott Drew did not do his team any favors with the way he set up his schedule. The Bears started off playing a bunch of really low-caliber opponents, and while that eventually earned them a No. 9 ranking, it also left them unprepared to face better teams. The result: Baylor lost three out of four to plummet out of the rankings. That, of course, makes this an ideal time to Buy its stock. I think Baylor will figure out its problems (getting freshman center Perry Jones more involved in the offense would be a start), and the Bears also have a very favorable Big 12 schedule -- they only play Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri once. They may not be one of the nine best teams in America, but they're at least in the top 25.
These are not your one-year-older-brother's Bulldogs. Brad Stevens tried to play down the idea that his team might have trouble wearing a bull's-eye in the wake of last year's run to the championship game, but the Bulldogs were clearly uncomfortable in that role. They've played their usual dirt-under-the-fingernails defense from the start, but while their offense appeared to be coming around, they got blitzed by 24 points at Wisconsin-Milwaukee Monday night. Butler has a chance to improve its stock by beating Cleveland State at home this Friday, but I wouldn't bet the mortgage on it.
BYU might well be a Sweet 16-caliber team, but the Jimmers -- sorry, the Cougars -- have done little to justify their ranking. Their best wins were against Saint Mary's and Arizona and they lost to UCLA by seven points in Anaheim. The Mountain West is strong enough that BYU will drop a few games, perhaps as early as Wednesday when the Cougs play at UNLV. Not saying this stock will plummet, but I also don't think it will get any higher.
The Huskies have been the season's big surprise, but I'm far from convinced they're the eighth-best team in the country. In the first place, now that they've entered league play, they're learning that it's not enough to rely on Kemba Walker to beat teams single-handedly. Losing at Pitt wasn't nearly as concerning to me as the fact that instead of taking out their anger on the next opponent, the Huskies needed overtime to beat South Florida at home. This is also a great time to sell this stock because UConn has Notre Dame and Texas next on the road, and later this month the Huskies have Villanova and Tennessee at home. This is a tournament team (which I would not have said at the start of the season), but at this point it has nowhere to go but down.
How good are the Blue Devils without Kyrie Irving? Who knows? Since the freshman point guard injured his toe on Dec. 4, Duke won four games over low-caliber teams by an average of 36 points before opening ACC play with an 11-point win at home over Miami Sunday night. This team can still win a title, but it has much less margin for error than before Irving was hurt. For me to rate a team a Buy when it is ranked No. 1 would have to mean I'm virtually guaranteeing it will win the title. And I'm far from ready to do that.
I realize Xavier is not exactly the '86 Celtics, but the Musketeers had won 30 home games in a row before the Gators came in and beat them last Friday. They followed that up by whupping a decent Rhode Island team in Gainesville by 25. That has to be encouraging for a team that began the season ranked ninth before dropping out of the Top 25. Florida's three-point loss at UCF doesn't look quite so bad now as it did two weeks ago. UF walloped Kansas State by 13 before falling on its face at home to Jacksonville the next time out. In other words, the world has a low opinion of the Gators. You may not get rich with this purchase, but you'll earn a little extra beer money.
I realize the Seminoles are unranked so there's not much to sell, but I still get the sense that people think they're better than they are. Yes, Chris Singleton is one of the top five defenders in America, but at some point you've got to put the biscuit in the basket. That's where this team comes up short, scoring just 51, 44, 64 and 60 points in losses to Florida, Ohio State, Butler and Auburn (Auburn!), respectively. Even when Florida State upset Baylor in Hawaii on Christmas Day, it still failed to muster 70 points.
Even though the Hoyas have started Big East play with a pair of road losses to Notre Dame and St. John's, I still think they have the type of makeup that bodes well for postseason success. This team's four-man nucleus includes three seniors and a junior. It's not uncommon for Georgetown to stumble early in the conference season because Big East teams, unlike nonconference foes, are accustomed to playing against the Princeton offense. I also like Georgetown's league schedule, which has the Hoyas playing once against Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Louisville and UConn.
In the twisted logic of the Hoop Thoughts Stock Report, if the Illini had beaten Missouri instead of falling apart down the stretch, they would be less likely to warrant a Buy. Ditto for their overtime loss to Texas in Madison Square Garden back in November. This group is never going to play as tough as I'd like them to, but they showed some moxie when they out-rebounded a gritty Wisconsin team by seven in their win Sunday night. I also like the way the early Big Ten schedule sets up. Illinois will play Michigan State and Ohio State in Champaign later this month. You've got to figure they can at least get a split, possibly a sweep. That means their price is about to go up. Timing is everything, folks.
Even though I picked the Jayhawks to win the national championship on CBS last month (and in the Crystal Ball today), I am still waiting to see whether they can acquire efficiency and discipline that's commensurate to their talent. Yes, they have upside awaiting as Josh Selby gets more comfortable running the show, but they are a lousy free-throw shooting team that turns the ball over too much. On Jan. 9, they begin a stretch of six out of nine games on the road. The recent indefinite suspension to senior guard Mario Little following his arrest on battery charges does not help.
The Wildcats' ranking dropped appropriately following recent losses to Florida and UNLV, but I still get the sense most fans think of them as a Final Four challenger. I don't. I'm sure they'll be a tough out, but I think Kansas State's overall lack of skill, poor foul shooting and questionable leadership will offset its many positive qualities. Jacob Pullen's three-game suspension for accepting extra benefits is over, but Curtis Kelly still has two more to go. Plus, this team is about to encounter the toughest part of its Big 12 schedule. Beginning on Jan. 17, the Wildcats play at Missouri, at Texas A&M, home against Baylor, and at Kansas. Early February might be a good time to repurchase this stock, but in the short term I think things are going to get worse before they get better.
You might assume I think pretty highly of the 'Cats to rate them a Buy when they're ranked 10th and coming off a big win at Louisville. And you're right. It's ironic that this team is both younger and less talented than last year's, yet it appears to be more mature, efficient, poised and therefore more capable of reaching the Final Four. A lot of that is attributable to the preternaturally poised freshmen, but the team's upperclassmen (Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrelson) have provided critical stability. Instead of constantly looking for the right combinations and trying to keep everybody happy, John Calipari has settled in to a steady seven-man rotation, which helps continuity. While I tend to pick against young teams in the NCAA tournament, they make for great stock purchases in early January because they tend to get better quickly. This rating also reflects my low opinion of the SEC East, which has been a major disappointment outside of UK.
I'm not sure exactly what the Cardinals did to get ranked before dropping out of the AP poll following last Friday's drubbing by Kentucky. They beat Butler and UNLV at home, but also lost to Drexel. Now they have to play for up to six weeks without their leading rebounder, Rakeem Buckles, who is out with a broken finger. If you want to hold on to this stock for another couple of weeks, go ahead, but beware the gauntlet that begins on Jan. 29: at UConn, at Georgetown, home versus DePaul, at Notre Dame, home versus Syracuse. Anyone want to predict Louisville will be ranked after that?
Given that the Terps are unranked and unnoticed, it's pretty pointless to rate them a Sell. But I don't see them rising too high, either, especially with road games at Duke and Villanova looming in the next two weeks. There's a lot to like about sophomore forward Jordan Williams, who is fifth in the nation in rebounding (11.8 per game) and ranks third in the ACC in scoring (18.1), but Maryland is getting absolutely nothing out of its guards. When you can't even beat BC at home, you don't have much basis for optimism.
Even if you think Tennessee is a lousy team, the fact that Memphis is playing in Knoxville Wednesday night makes this a perfect time to sell. Conference USA is better than it has been in a while, and according to Kempom.com the Tigers are ranked 336th nationally in experience. They're fortunate that junior forward Wesley Witherspoon came back a little quicker than expected from injury, but given how young this team is, there's no way it's going to go through the league and hold on to its ranking.
I'm not ready to jump off the Spartans' bandwagon, but I'm not driving it anymore either. It has been a long time since I've seen a team go into the Breslin Center and embarrass Michigan State the way Texas did on December 22. I feel pretty confident that Kalin Lucas will steadily improve as his surgically repaired Achilles tendon gets stronger, but to me the biggest X-factor is Durrell Summers, who was the catalyst for last year's surprising Final Four run. Consider that in the first half against Minnesota last Friday, Summers had five points and the Spartans trailed by six. He scored 14 in the second half and they won by nine. He followed that up by going 4-for-14 as the Spartans almost blew a late 13-point lead at Northwestern Monday night. Whether or not you want to buy this stock depends on which Summers you believe will be in uniform the next three months.
I might have recommended a Sell here because I think the Gophers have been ranked a little too high given that their best win came on a neutral court against North Carolina. (Not to mention Devoe Joseph's indefinite suspension.) But their back-to-back road losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State served as a fitting market correction. Minnesota will never wow you offensively, but they can grind you out and beat you up as well as any team in the Big Ten. The Gophers have to play at Ohio State on Sunday, but after that they have relatively smooth sailing until early February.
It's hard to measure buzz with precision, but for a team ranked ninth it seems that nobody is talking about the Tigers. That might be because there is no signature player -- at Missouri, the system is the star -- but this team has shown a lot of heart and resilience, especially down the stretch of games. Mizzou trailed Georgetown by 18 points in the first half before rallying to send the game into overtime, where it lost by nine. The Tigers also beat a good Vanderbilt team in overtime and beat Illinois with a 14-2 run to end the game. As good as the Tigers have been, they could get better in the next couple of weeks if 6-foot-8 freshman forward Tony Mitchell gets cleared academically to play.
This purchase has very little downside, because nobody thinks the Wolfpack are very good. Yet, all four of their losses have been to respectable teams (Georgetown, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Arizona), and they had to play 10 games without their best player, senior forward Tracy Smith, who was out with a knee injury. Smith returned to score 16 points in a win over San Diego on Saturday. N.C. State is extremely young (after Smith, the Pack's four top scorers include three freshmen and a sophomore), so this team has a lot of potential to get better quickly. Might as well take a flyer.
Notre Dame's heavy reliance on three-point shooting will not lead to a whole lot of success on the road. (The Irish were 7-for-21 from behind the arc in their 12-point loss at Syracuse on Saturday.) Still, I don't think this team is going anywhere. I love the all-senior starting five, and this could be the best defensive team that Mike Brey has had in South Bend. The X-factor moving forward is freshman point guard Eric Atkins, who has been providing a nice spark off the bench but has yet to prove himself in the crucible of the Big East.
I was one of the early skeptics about the Buckeyes because I was concerned about their lack of an experienced true point guard. But freshman Aaron Craft has been better than I expected off the bench, and seniors David Lighty and William Buford have been effective playmakers as well. I also believe freshman center Jared Sullinger is going to make a strong run at national player of the year. The Buckeyes' Big Ten schedule is backloaded, so they should be well-positioned to claim the No. 1 ranking should Duke lose in the next few weeks.
This one's an easy call. The Cowboys have never been ranked this season and they've generated very little buzz, but they're clearly not as good as their record. We found that out last Friday when in their first real test of the season, they got blitzed by 21 at Gonzaga. (They also lost by five to Virginia Tech on a neutral court.) Even while amassing wins against overmatched opponents, Oklahoma State revealed a tendency to commit too many turnovers and an inability to make three-point shots. That will spell trouble during a Big 12 schedule that will have the Pokes in their first six games playing Kansas State and Texas at home, plus Texas A&M and Baylor on the road.
I was going to rate the Panthers a Hold until I looked at their schedule. I'm not sure how this happened, but Pitt only has to play UConn, Georgetown, Syracuse and Notre Dame once. (And the Panthers already beat UConn.) So while Pitt can hardly climb much higher in the polls, I also don't expect this team to fall too far. With no real dominant teams out there, this is a good year to be flush with intangibles like toughness and experience. For me, the difference-maker is 6-10 senior center Gary McGhee, not because he reminds anyone of Hakeem Olajuwon, but there are very few top teams that have a post player who is that big and reliable.
Matt Painter doesn't play the weakest nonconference schedule around, but for some reason he never puts his team through the full Izzo. If ever there was a year to do so, this would have been it. (Painter obviously didn't know Robbie Hummel was going to blow out his knee the first week of practice.) Purdue is a good team, and I wouldn't count them out for a deep tourney run even without Hummel, but the Boilermakers' ranking is a tad inflated because of their schedule. Their toughest nonconference opponents were Virginia Tech, which they beat in overtime on the road, and Richmond (an 11-point loss on a neutral court). Expect the Boilermakers to get knocked down a few pegs toward the end of January, when they hit the teeth of their Big Ten schedule.
I think very highly of the Aztecs, but this was the easiest call on the board. Talk about nowhere to go but down -- this team has risen to sixth in the AP poll on the basis of preseason expectations and a weak schedule (aside from the win at Gonzaga way back on Nov. 16). The Aztecs have a terrific (albeit undersized) frontline tandem in Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas, but they are bound to stumble a few times once Mountain West play gets under way, at which time their ranking and reputation will suffer. So dump the Aztecs now and be prepared to scoop 'em back up right before the tournament.
I might have rated the Johnnies a Buy in the wake of their inspiring win over Georgetown Monday night, but then I got a gander at their upcoming schedule. Holy Joe Lapchick, Batman: at Notre Dame, home vs. Syracuse, home vs. Notre Dame, at Louisville, home vs. Cincinnati (which is still undefeated), at Georgetown and home vs. Duke. What, the Spurs weren't available? Not to mention the big Feb. 5 date at Steve Lavin's former employer, UCLA. St. John's is the fourth-most experienced team in the country, but despite starting off league play with impressive road wins at West Virginia and Providence, you have to wonder if this will be a battered and bruised team come February.
I like the Orange, but I don't see how this stock can go any higher. That said, for a team that can't make threes or score in the post, the Orange can put a lot of points on the board. They're taking care of the ball (just 10.9 turnovers per game) and that zone defense is as riddling as ever. This team is typified by junior point guard Scoop Jardine, who only makes 30 percent from three-point range but is ranked in the top five in the Big East in assists, steals and assist-to-turnover ratio. As I said with respect to Pitt, this is a season where steady but unspectacular could very well win the race.
This rating reflects my high opinion of Temple, but also my low opinion of the Atlantic 10. Outside of Richmond, there are no teams in this league that would strike fear on Selection Sunday. I've been calling for senior center Lavoy Allen to be a more aggressive scorer, and he gave me hope by scoring 22 points in last week's loss at Villanova. Temple also has wins at Maryland and at home against Georgetown, so you know it's capable of beating just about anyone. With its experience (the Owls' leading scorers are junior guards Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez) and unconventional style, Temple is going to be a tough out in March.
This team can't possibly be this bad, can it? (Uh, maybe you shouldn't answer that.) There's not much upside to buying this stock, but there's basically no downside, either. So why not take a chance? This is still the group that beat two top-10 teams in Villanova and Pitt (the latter on the road no less). Maybe they'll start turning things around Wednesday night at home against rival Memphis. Or maybe not having Bruce Pearl for the first eight SEC games will serve as a rallying cry. Or maybe they'll pull off a big upset when Pearl is allowed to coach a nonconference game at Connecticut on Jan. 22. All I know is that if this team doesn't start digging down and rededicating itself to defense, its slide will never turn around.
You'll notice a pattern: I love buying young teams in early January. The Longhorns are even younger than they look on paper because their three most important players (Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton) are freshmen and sophomores. In some ways this is a risky buy because beginning Jan. 19, they have a brutal five-game stretch in the league that includes two games against Texas A&M and a road date at Kansas. Texas might lose a game or two there, but it will only toughen this team for the stretch run.
The Aggies are one of those teams with a low ceiling but a high floor. They don't create a lot of points off their defense, but they do a great job of slowing the tempo and preventing their opponents from scoring. You have to play well to beat them -- but if you play well, you can beat them. Their signature wins came over Temple and Washington by a combined four points, but they also have lost to Boston College. More than any other team in the Big 12, Texas A&M has a favorable unbalanced schedule. The Aggies play Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State once each.
It's amazing to me that a mid-major team could be undefeated, ranked and have Michael Jordan's son on the roster -- yet very few people (outside of geeks like us) are talking about them. The ranking might not get much higher, but there's plenty of upside in the buzz department. The Knights have at least as many signature wins (over Florida and Miami) as San Diego State. They go a legit 10 deep, they're ranked in the top five nationally in both offensive and defensive field-goal percentage, and thanks largely to 7-foot senior center Tom Herzog, a transfer from Michigan State, they're ranked third in the nation in blocks.
I've never done a Futures Stock Report, but if I did this team would be at the top of my list. It looks like the Bruins may finally be rebounding from their multiyear string of defections (assuming Tyler Honeycutt isn't stupid enough to go pro). They show a maddening tendency to play up or down to their competition (beating BYU and almost beating Kansas; losing to Montana and almost losing to UC Irvine), but that's what young teams do. I'm not sure the Bruins will be ready for their close up come March, but by the start of next season they should be ranked in the preseason top five. In the short term, a lingering concern will be junior point guard Lazeric Jones, who injured a finger in Friday's loss to Washington and will probably have to wear a splint for at least the next month.
A lot of people have compared the addition of point guard Jio Fontan to last year's midseason transfer, Mike Gerrity, but I think Fontan is much better. The Fordham transfer's first game didn't get as much pub as Josh Selby's did at Kansas, but in his first game Fontan almost spoiled Selby's debut by scoring 15 points in the close loss in Lawrence. Fontan will speed up USC's offense, and on the other end of the floor the Trojans will play the kind of in-your-shorts defense we've come to expect from Kevin O'Neill's teams. Clearly I think more highly of the Pac-10 than most people (not saying much), and I think USC is the second-best team in the league. That means they're going to make the tournament, which would make this stock a steal.
Here's another one of those high-floor-low-ceiling teams. The Commodores are smart enough not to lose to teams they should beat, but are they talented enough to consistently beat teams they shouldn't? Not sure. I think Festus Ezeli is giving Vandy a toughness and defensive presence it has lacked in the past, but the league will not give them many opportunities for real eyebrow-raising wins. Outside of an upset of Kentucky and maybe a couple of tough road wins, Vandy will have a hard time breaking into the top 15.
It's very hard to be ranked in the top 10 and warrant a Buy rating, so the Wildcats should consider this a backhanded compliment. I was leaning toward rating them a Sell until they survived a tough test last week against Temple even though Corey Fisher was limited because of foul trouble. I like the steady (but a little too slow) improvement of sophomore center Mouphtaou Yarou, though I can't help but wonder what might have been if freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston hadn't been suspended for the season following a fight at a fraternity party. Nova's Big East schedule is a little soft the next couple of weeks before heating up with consecutive road games at UConn, Syracuse and Providence, followed by a date at home with Georgetown. We'll know a lot more about them after they've passed through that gauntlet.
For almost two months I've been the only guy buying Washington. I might be able to retire on this stock alone. Somehow the Huskies fell off everybody's radar after they committed the unpardonable sin of losing at Texas A&M by a point. The Huskies got the toughest part of their Pac-10 schedule behind them when they won at USC and UCLA last week. They are ranked fifth overall in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency ratings, and for the first time in a while they have some legitimate post defenders in Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N'Diaye. Last year this team flew under the radar all the way until mid-March, when they were the surprise winners of the Pac-10 tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. You can overlook them again if you like, but I'm locking in.
The Badgers may not be ranked, but they're fourth in others receiving votes. That means most people think they'll be ranked at some point this season. Count me as one of those people. There's a lot to like about this stock. Wisconsin rarely loses to teams it should beat, especially in Madison, and the Big Ten is not as strong as many anticipated. The Badgers also have one of the truly underrated players in the country in junior guard Jordan Taylor. Even so, do you envision this team leapfrogging Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois, Purdue or Minnesota in the league standings? Neither do I. This stock is unlikely to go significantly up or down over the next three months.