My annual Stock Report (cont.)
Kansas (13-0, No. 1): BUY
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.
Kansas State (13-1, No. 11): BUY
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.
Kentucky (15-0, No. 3): HOLD
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.
Louisville (10-4, NR): HOLD
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.
Maryland (9-4, NR): SELL
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.
Memphis (10-3, NR): HOLD
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.
Michigan (7-6, NR): SELL
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.
Michigan State (11-3, No. 10): BUY
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.
New Mexico (14-1, No. 15): BUY
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.
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