Annual Stock Report (cont.)
MARYLAND (9-4, NR): HOLD
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.
MEMPHIS (11-2, No. 21): SELL
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.
MICHIGAN STATE (10-4, No. 18): HOLD
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.
MINNESOTA (11-3, NR): HOLD
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.
MISSOURI (13-1, No. 9): BUY
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.
NORTH CAROLINA (10-4, NR): BUY-PLUS
Last year, I gave this unusually bullish ranking to Baylor. Like these Tar Heels, those Bears were also unranked, but they ended their season in the Elite Eight. So you might want to take my advice on this one. For some reason -- and my guess is the embarrassment of last season -- people have not been properly applying the transitive property to North Carolina. The Heels beat Kentucky at home, and look at what Kentucky just did to Louisville on the road. They lost to Texas in Greensboro on a last-second bucket, and look what the Longhorns did to Michigan State. I realize nobody will ever call Larry Drew II the second coming of Phil Ford, but as a group North Carolina's perimeter guys are actually pretty good. Witness Leslie McDonald and Justin Watts, who provided a combined 24 points off the bench in last week's rout of Rutgers. Lots of people look at Harrison Barnes and see a disappointment, but I see a very talented young man who is learning a little bit more with every dribble. Finally, look around the ACC and find me a team besides Duke that's better than North Carolina. It's only a matter of time before the Heels are back in the rankings to stay, so you better buy 'em now while they're dirt cheap.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE (9-4, NR): BUY
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 (12-2, No. 14): BUY
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.
OHIO STATE (14-0, No. 2): BUY
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.
OKLAHOMA STATE (12-2, NR): SELL
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.
PITTSBURGH (13-1, No. 5): BUY
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.
PURDUE (13-1, No. 11): SELL
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.
SAN DIEGO STATE (15-0, No. 6): SELL
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.
ST. JOHN'S (10-3, NR): HOLD
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.
SYRACUSE (15-0, No. 4): HOLD
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.
TEMPLE (9-3, NR): BUY
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.
TENNESSEE (9-4, NR): BUY
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.