My annual Stock Report (cont.)
North Carolina (11-3, No. 9): SELL
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.
Ohio State (10-4, NR): BUY
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.
Ole Miss (11-2, No. 14): HOLD
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.
Purdue (13-0, No. 4): BUY
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.
St. John's (10-4, NR): SELL
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.
Syracuse (13-1, No. 7): BUY
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.
Temple (11-3, No. 21): HOLD
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.
Tennessee (10-2, No. 16): SELL
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.
Texas (13-0, No. 2): BUY
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.
Villanova (12-1, No. 6): SELL
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.
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