Annual Stock Report (Cont.)
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.
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