Taking Stock, Hoop Thoughts-Style: Which teams to buy, sell and hold
Hoop Thoughts (Cont.)
Hoop Thoughts (Cont.)
In college basketball, we don't need no stinkin' fiscal cliffs. We always live on the edge. It's how we roll.
That is especially true when the calendar turns to January. The conference season has begun. The hiding is over. The filibusters are filibusted. As teams play true road games against neighborhood rivals, we get to find out every team's true value. All bets are on.
That's why this is the perfect time not just to re-assess the landscape of college basketball but also project how it is going to change. Hence, I present an esteemed roundball tradition: The annual Hoop Thoughts Stock Report. This is where you find out who's going up, who's going down, and who's holding steady.
Regular Hoop Thinkers know how this works. I have assessed each team's value based on its ranking, its won-loss record, and that all-important-but-hard-to-quantify category called "buzz." I have then rated each stock as a Buy, Sell or Hold. This year I was surprisingly bullish. Among the 42 teams I rated, 19 earned a Buy, 13 earned a Sell and nine earned a Hold. One team earned the rare and coveted Buy-Plus. As a service to readers, I have also added 10 sleeper stocks and 10 stocks to dump. That's a grand total of 62 teams, a record for the HTSR.
Remember, now, these ratings assess only where a stock is headed relative to where it is today. That yields a twisted logic. The better a team is, the higher it's ranked, the more likely it is to yield a Sell. The opposite is true for teams that are unranked and unremarked upon. Thus, just because I rate Team A a Buy and Team B a Sell, that does not mean I think Team A is the better team. Got it?
Of course you do. You are not a Congressman. You are a Hoop Thinker. You get your work done long before you get to a cliff. All the better to enjoy the view.
ARIZONA (12-0, No. 3): HOLD
I recognize this team is talented and the Pac 12 is weak. But I also recognize that this is still a young team, and that the Wildcats' two signature wins each came by a single point, and neither was on the road. The whole Mark Lyons-as-point-guard conundrum is not as troublesome to me as it used to be, largely because there are two veteran passing forwards on this team in Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom to make the offense run smoothly. This team has Final Four potential, but a team with this many young and new pieces must go through its learning curve between here and there. The Cats' stock value won't dip far, but I don't see it they can climb much higher.
BAYLOR (8-4): HOLD
This team is too soft defensively to buy, but it has too many good pieces to sell. The good pieces are headlined by 5-foot-10 senior Pierre Jackson, who is as good at both ends of the floor as just about any point guard in the country. Freshman forward Isaiah Austin is young, but he's a lottery pick who has the potential to go for 30 on any given night. And at some point, Brady Heslip has to start shooting better, right? The Bears have to play at Kansas on Jan. 14, but they don't play at Oklahoma State or at Kansas State until February, so they've got a chance for some confidence-boosting wins in the next few weeks.
BUTLER (11-2, No. 17): BUY
The Bulldogs beat top-ranked Indiana and jumped into the rankings. You'd think they would therefore be a prime candidate to sell. But I just can't go there. In the first place, the Atlantic 10, though not as strong as I envisioned it would be in the preseason, still offers the chance for some quality wins -- most notably on March 2, when Butler plays at VCU in the Cinderella Bowl. The Bulldogs also host Gonzaga in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Jan. 19, another plum opportunity to take a leap forward. This team's point guard play is unconventional, but it has arguably the best shooter in the country (Rotnei Clark), an A-1 Glue Guy (Roosevelt Jones), a sturdy center (Andrew Smith) and an iconic walk-on (Alex Barlow). Butler will stub its toe a few times during the regular season, but even that won't change my rating. I've seen this movie before. It plays well in March.
CINCINNATI (13-1, No. 14) SELL
According to the pretzelized dynamic of the HTSR, Cincinnati's win at Pittsburgh on Monday made it less likely to warrant a Buy. Don't get me wrong, I like this team, partly because I don't think Mick Cronin wants to keep grinding out low-scoring victories. The fact that the Bearcats' big men have no ability to score in their half-court offense makes it even more imperative for them to get out and go. And Cronin has the depth to make it happen. The problem is that it's tougher to speed up games in conference play, and tougher still to do it in the NCAA tournament. I also don't like the fact that the Bearcats are the worst free throw shooting team in the Big East.
CREIGHTON (13-1, No. 16) BUY
I was going to rate the Bluejays a Hold until I watched them win a tough conference road game at Illinois State Wednesday night. Yes, I love that this team has arguably the best player in the country in Doug McDermott, but what I really like is that they don't need him to play like a superstar to beat good teams. The Dougie took just 10 shots against Illinois State and scored 15 points, the third-highest total on the team. Creighton is also a much better defensive team than it was a year ago. This is a veteran, well-balanced team, and the Missouri Valley will present plenty of opportunities to earn wins, climb in the rankings and generate buzz. All the things that make a stock worth buying.
DUKE (13-0, No. 1): BUY
This rating is less an endorsement of the Blue Devils and more a recognition that the ACC is very weak. Other than Duke, Miami and possibly Georgia Tech are the only teams that have met or exceeded preseason expectations so far. Seth Curry's lingering leg injury might be limiting his practice time, but it is not hindering his game. Mason Plumlee is a surprising frontrunner for National Player of the Year (though his recent free throw shooting is becoming a concern). And the team has a chance to get deeper in the frontcourt if freshmen Marshall Plumlee and Alex Murphy ever develop. Duke is not going to go undefeated, but its stock price is not going to drop significantly between now and the tournament, and the Blue Devils have a very real chance to win the whole shebang.
FLORIDA (9-2, No. 13): HOLD
The Gators were the new little black dress for a while there, weren't they? They made Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State look like jayvee teams, and it appeared they solved the chemistry issues that plagued them in the past. The last few minutes of the game at Arizona changed that perception, as Kenny Boynton's poor decision-making led to a late collapse and a one-point loss. I thought Florida would bounce back and beat Kansas State, but the Gators trailed most of the way and lost by six. A 6-2 senior, Boynton's 29.4 clip from three-point range is 11 percentage points lower than a year ago, but he hasn't shown he can run the offense when he's asked to take over for regular point guard Scottie Wilbekin. I still think this is a good defensive team with improved toughness in the frontcourt, and of course the SEC isn't filled with juggernauts. But until the Gators win a tough game, it's hard to recommend you buy their stock when they're ranked in the top 15.
GEORGETOWN (10-1, No. 15): BUY
This may seem unwisely bullish, but the Hoyas' stock price really took a beating after that hellacious 37-36 win over Tennessee. Still, the Hoyas have one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball in Otto Porter, who is ranked in the top 10 of the Big East in points, steals, field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. They have a unique system that is tough to defend. And the Hoyas have a favorable schedule that includes just one game against Louisville, and that one's at home. Four of Georgetown's first six league games are on the road, but after that the Hoyas play five out of seven in D.C. So they'll have a chance to bank some house money before the final stretch.
GONZAGA (13-1, No. 10): HOLD
This rating is a backhanded compliment. Gonzaga's always-challenging nonconference schedule is over (save a game at Butler on Jan. 19). Since that's the only remaining game against a ranked team, it's hard to imagine the Zags' stock climbing much higher between now and March, especially with three of its first four league games coming on the road. This team has overwhelming talent, and the perimeter defense is a little suspect, but there's no doubt that the Zags can beat you in more ways than most any other team Mark Few has had in Spokane. The only question is whether Gonzaga will finally get a few lucky breaks in the tournament and finally make the Final Four.
ILLINOIS (13-2, No. 11): SELL
I'm not just overreacting to the loss at Purdue Wednesday night. Brandon Paul has been terrific at times and I love the up-tempo style John Groce has brought to the stodgy Big Ten, but I don't believe Illinois' formula for success is sustainable. According to kempon.com, heading into the Purdue game, the Illini were getting nearly 37 percent of their points on three-point shots, the 20th-highest rate in the country. Yet, they are only ranked 62nd in three-point percentage. Against the Boilermakers, the Illini jacked up 26 three-point attempts but only took 14 free throws. In their two-point win over Auburn they shot 4-for-15 from three. This is a brutal conference, so I'm anticipating that the Illini's stock will correct itself in the coming weeks.
INDIANA (13-1, No. 5): BUY
The Hoosiers may be ranked fifth, but you can feel that the belief in them has waned since the preseason. I spy an artificially deflated stock. A team trying to break in a freshman point guard was bound to go through some growing pains. For all the hand-wringing about Cody Zeller -- and I have been one of those critical of his passive play -- the kid is still averaging 17 points and eight rebounds in under 28 minutes per game. We should all have such problems. You can also expect freshman forward Hanner Perea, who was suspended for the first nine games and played just four minutes in Monday's win at Iowa, to be an increasingly big factor as the season goes on. The Hoosiers will take their lumps in the Big Ten and may not go into the tournament as a number one seed, but make no mistake: They have a very real chance to hoist the big trophy on April 8.
KANSAS (11-1, No. 6): BUY
It is rare to see a team have so many talented pieces that fit together so well. The Jayhawks are anchored by a lottery-level player in Ben McLemore, and even though he is just a redshirt freshman, the older players on the team have encouraged him to be their go-to guy. Kansas also has not one but three fifth-year seniors, including 7-foot senior center Jeff Withey, who is my choice right now for national defensive player of the year. I'm a little disappointed in Elijah Johnson's spotty play at the point, but sophomore Naadir Tharpe is rapidly improving off the bench. We know the Jayhawks are going to win the Big 12 yet again, so they're almost certain to go into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed. I'd be surprised if their season does not end in the 404.
KANSAS STATE (11-2, No. 25): HOLD
There's not a whole lot to get excited about here, but I do think Kansas State is a solid team that won't fall far. Making outside shots is always going to be a problem (as a team the Wildcats are converting about 33 percent from behind the arc and are making less than six treys per game). But they do two things that can always be replicated on the road: play defense and pound the offensive glass. In their win over Florida, the Wildcats held the Gators to 5-for-19 three-point shooting and out-rebounded them by 10. Kansas State also plays Oklahoma State, Kansas and Texas at home over the next three weeks, so its stock price is likely to get a quick sugar rush.
KENTUCKY (9-4): BUY
The Wildcats' floor is clearly rising, but I'm not sure their ceiling is as high as many believe. Their second-half comeback at Louisville would not have happened if the Cardinals didn't get into major foul trouble. Alex Poythress' passive play is befuddling. And their foul shooting is atrocious across the board. Still, UK's stock price has gone sharply south since it was ranked No. 3 to start the season. The players are too talented and the league is too weak for them not to continue their climb.
LOUISVILLE (13-1, No. 4): BUY
I'm not backing off my preseason prediction that Indiana will win the championship (not yet anyway) but if I did, Louisville would be my next choice. I've always loved teams with a pair of guards who can create (and make) their own shot as well as set up their teammates. When you combine Peyton Siva and Russ Smith with the nation's best defense -- a defense that just got better with the return of Gorgui Dieng -- then you have all the makings of a national champ. Plus, I like the way Louisville's schedule sets up in the Big East. The Cardinals play just one road game against a ranked team between now and Feb. 9, and they end the regular season with home games against Cincinnati and Notre Dame.
MARYLAND (12-1): SELL
The Terrapins have been knocking at the door of the top 25, but there's really no good reason why. They lost their opener to a Kentucky team that has since fallen out of the rankings, and they have played an extremely weak slate since then. I'm not saying this team doesn't have potential or won't be in the NCAA tournament (it does and it will), but I think given the Terps' problems shooting and taking care of the basketball, they are in for a reality check with the start of conference play. That includes a stretch beginning next week that has them playing four of six games on the road, including at Miami, North Carolina and Duke. So you should sell now and decide if the Terps are worth buying back next month.
MIAMI (9-3): SELL
The Hurricanes were playing some high-quality ball until their mammoth senior center, Reggie Johnson, suffered a broken thumb that will sideline him for another month. Miami showed how vulnerable it is without Johnson when it collapsed late in the second half and lost to Indiana State in Hawaii. As if Johnson's injury weren't a big enough problem, the Canes will also play the tougher part of their ACC schedule during the first four weeks, with road games at North Carolina and N.C. State and a home date with Duke. The Shane Larkin-Durand Scott tandem in the backcourt will win games, but Johnson will really have to work hard on his conditioning while he's out. I can't imagine him being the same player when he comes back in mid-February.
MEMPHIS (9-3): HOLD
Conference USA will once again be a double-edged sword for this team. On the one hand, Memphis does not appear to have any serious challengers inside the league. On the other hand, that means even if the Tigers run the table (which they won't), it will be hard for them to raise their stock price. And I certainly can't recommend buying a team right before it has to play a road game at Tennesse, its bitter intra-state rival. I like that junior point guard Joe Jackson seems to have settled into a nice rhythm, but I'm perplexed that sophomore forward Adonis Thomas is not having the breakout season so many of us anticipated.
MICHIGAN (13-0, No. 2): HOLD
Playing the market is all about timing, and even though I think the Wolverines can win a national championship, this is just not a good time buy their stock. Beginning on Jan. 13, the Wolverines will play six out of nine Big Ten games on the road, and all but one of those will be against a team currently ranked in the top 20. Plus, I don't like that it has taken so long for sophomore forward Jon Horford to recover from the dislocated kneecap he suffered Dec. 15 against West Virginia. Horford is expected back at some point this season, but in the meantime Michigan is a little short on frontcourt depth.
MICHIGAN STATE (11-3, No. 18): SELL
We all know how Tom Izzo's teams perform in March, but that's a long way away. Right now, the Spartans are being assessed based more on past reputation than current achievement. They got their signature win over Kansas in the second game of the season. They'd have a much tougher time beating the Jayhawks on a neutral court today. Keith Appling is a terrific individual talent, but he still looks like a shooting guard who's out of position playing the point. Adreian Payne is still maddeningly inconsistent, and the Spartans are still having a hard time holding onto the ball. Given how strong the Big Ten is, my advice is to sell Michigan State now, and then if its stock price is devalued during the regular season, you can buy them back right before the tournament.
MINNESOTA (13-1, No. 9): HOLD
The more I see the Gophers, the more I like them, but how much higher can they possibly climb? Sixth-year senior forward Trevor Mbakwe finally looks like he has regained his explosiveness following a devastating knee injury last season, and I love Andre Hollins' emergence as an elite scoring guard. That kid loves the big moments. If the Gophers can split their road games at Illinois and Indiana and beat Michigan at home on Jan. 17, their stock will enjoy an uptick. But once again, this is just a brutal league. Everybody is going to have bad stretches.
MISSOURI (10-2, No. 12): BUY
This team isn't as good as last year's, but in many ways it is more suited for success in the NCAA tourament. Instead of having to run and shoot all the time, these Tigers can junkyard dog their way to Atlanta. With the return (and remarkable improvement) of Laurence Bowers and the arrival of transfer Alex Oriakhi, Missouri can score in the post and beat teams on the offensive glass. If they're making jump shots, that's gravy. Oregon transfer Jabari Brown has acclimated more quickly than I expected, and Phil Pressey has proven he can dominate a game even when he's not scoring. If Missouri had pulled off that win at UCLA, this stock may have been a little inflated. Even the move to the SEC is going to help. But they lost, and the SEC is weak, so that makes them a good Buy.
NEW MEXICO (13-2, No. 20): HOLD
I love them, I love them not. In winning at Cincinnati by a point, the Lobos showed they have toughness as well as a hard-to-guard center in 7-foot sophomore Alex Kirk. But in losing at home to South Dakota State and then at St. Louis by 14 points, the Lobos also showed that they can really struggle to score at times. That means they're going to beat teams they should lose to, and occasionally lose to teams they should beat. The opening of the league schedule is also a mixed bag, with home games against UNLV and Colorado State mixed with road dates at Boise State and San Diego State.
NORTH CAROLINA (10-3): BUY
You won't make a ton of money buying North Carolina, but the talent is too plentiful, the coaching is too good, and the conference is too weak for the Tar Heels not to rise a couple of pegs. I was impressed by the win over UNLV considering the Heels were without their second-leading scorer, Reggie Bullock. North Carolina also has a favorable schedule the next couple of weeks before it has to play at N.C. State on Jan. 26. Don't count on the Heels doing much damage in March, but in January and February, this stock is a bargain.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE (11-2, No. 23): BUY
I recommend you buy this stock because a) this is a young team that is going to get better in a weak conference, and b) they play Duke at home one week from Saturday. This is the game that the Blue Devils are most likely to lose in the league, so if nothing else, this is a smart risk on a short buy. Point guard Lorenzo Brown seems to have shaken off the issues that plagued him in the early part of the season, and I love the toughness and inside scoring Richard Howell has been providing of late. N.C. State has not lived up to preseason expectations to this point, but there's too much talent on this roster for the team's stock price to remain low.
NOTRE DAME (12-1, No. 21): BUY
The Fighting Irish are like a painting that hangs in the corner of your living room. You know they're there, they look nice, they're appreciated, but they don't generate much conversation. That's going to change soon. This is a smart, tough, veteran team that is strong inside (Jack Cooley) and out (underrated point guard Eric Atkins). Plus, I like that the Irish know who they are. They are not going to blow by anyone, so they have to grind you and out-smart you. If they can win at Cincinnati next Monday, they have a chance to get off to a boffo start in the Big East before their big showdown at Syracuse on Feb. 4.
OHIO STATE (11-2, No. 8): SELL
I have been saying since the preseason that I thought the Buckeyes were overrated, and nothing I've seen since has changed my mind. The fact that their two losses came to Duke and Kansas has not yet affected their ranking, but I suspect that will change in the coming weeks. This is as good a perimeter defensive team as you will find, but Ohio State's lack of offensive versatility is putting too much pressure on its D. Thad Matta was hoping that Aaron Craft would emerge as a viable No. 2 scoring option to Deshaun Thomas, but his shooting percentages are way down from last season. The two biggest X factors, LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams, have largely been non-factors. And freshman Amedeo Della Valle, a naturally gifted scorer, is too much of a defensive hindrance to earn minutes. Beginning Saturday, the Buckeyes have to play four out of six league games on the road. That's not good for a team's stock price.
OKLAHOMA STATE (10-2, No. 22): SELL
There's a lot to like about this Cowboys team, starting with its defense and its tough, savvy freshman point guard Marcus Smart. But winning with a freshman point guard is never easy in conference play, and I have a hard time trusting Le'Bryan Nash from game to game. This is one of the youngest teams in the country, with one of the shortest benches. That means it is vulnerable to foul trouble and injuries. I don't think the Pokes will fall far, so if you want to hold their stock for now, I won't work too hard talking you out of it. But there are enough traps ahead in the Big 12 that I'd be surprised if they climb any higher. Might as well dump 'em now and shop for a better value.
OREGON (11-2): BUY
The Ducks have been fluttering with the rankings for much of the season, but I think they're getting ready to make a serious move. You have to expect that a team that starts two freshman guards would be a little inconsistent in the early going, but this has one of the country's best defensive frontcourt tandems in Arsalan Kazemi and Tony Woods. I've always liked the way Dana Altman's teams play defense, and I think this team's style will be well-suited for success in the pillow-soft Pac 12.
PITTSBURGH (12-2, No. 24): BUY
Once again, if we apply the logic of the HTSR, the Panthers' loss at home to Cincinnati has temporarily deflated their stock, which makes this a great time to buy. I believe Pitt was a victim of its soft nonconference schedule. (Why Jamie Dixon set that up is beyond me.) They had plenty of talent to knock off Cincinnati, but they couldn't match the Bearcats' intensity in the second half. Besides having veteran, versatile players who can defend, Pitt is also blessed with a terrific young talent in freshman point guard James Robinson, who is averaging more than four assists per game in just 29 minutes. We can give up on the idea that Steven Adams, the 7-foot freshman from New Zealand, is going to be an effective scorer this season, but he's still a big man who can grab rebounds and block shots. And he's certainly not going to get any worse. Neither will Pitt.
SAN DIEGO STATE (12-2, No. 19): BUY
The Aztecs hung step for step with Arizona on a neutral court until Nick Johnson flew in the air and swatted Chase Tapley's potential game-winner. So if the Wildcats are considered short-list material for the Final Four, then San Diego State can't be very far behind. Sure, this team needs to do a better job finding some frontcourt scoring, but there aren't many more enjoyable players to watch than 6-5 junior guard Jamaal Franklin. He puts up good numbers (17 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists), but he also plays with great moxie and energy that is contagious. It will be a lot of fun watching San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico do battle atop the Mountain West, but the Aztecs get to play both of those teams at home in January. That means this stock is gonna rise before it starts to fall.
SYRACUSE (13-1, No. 7): SELL
It's possible I am overreacting to the loss to a Temple team that was three days removed from a home loss to Canisius. It's also possible that all of us overreacted to a season opening win over San Diego State on a sun-and-wind-addled aircraft carrier. Since Syracuse did not play an otherwise notable nonconference schedule (imagine!), my sense is this team is in for a rough few weeks. In the first place, I don't like the Orange's lack of proficiency from three-point range. They are making 33.3 percent as a team, but their two primary ballhandlers, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, are making a combined 28.4 percent. Moreover, Syracuse has a tricky schedule the next few weeks. Besides having to play at Louisville on Jan. 18 and at Pitt on Feb. 2, the Orange have to play two sneaky tough road games at South Florida and Providence. The lockdown zone defense and offensive rebounding will get Syracuse past most opponents, but I'm not convinced that will be enough to match its ranking and buzz in the near term.
TENNESSEE (8-3): SELL
I'd like to tell you that better days are ahead for the Vols, that the weakness of the SEC will allow them to rise. The truth is, this one of the most offensively challenged "good" teams I've ever seen. Cuonzo Martin has done well by using point guard Trae Golden to slow the tempo and grind out wins, but that is hard to maintain over the course of a long season. Plus, it's not clear when or if senior forward Jeronne Maymon will return after knee surgery. We'll probably know for sure either way on Monday. Even if Tennessee beats Memphis this weekend, I don't think it can win enough conference games to make the NCAA tournament.
TEXAS (8-5): BUY
This is an easy call. In the first place, this is a very cheap stock. The Longhorns have been borderline unwatchable at times in the early going, and many people have left them for dead. So even if they go nowhere, you haven't lost a lot of money by buying them. We all know the Longhorns will be without sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo until mid-February because of an NCAA suspension, but they have also played most of the season without sophomore forward Jaylen Bond, a projected starter who just returned from a lingering left foot injury. And keep in mind that in 14 years as the coach at Texas, Rick Barnes has never missed out on the NCAA tournament. His teams usually get better as the season wears on, and barring any more unforeseen personnel issues, I expect this one to do the same.
UCLA (10-3): BUY
You would have made a much bigger margin on this stock if the Bruins had fallen short against Missouri instead of winning by one in overtime, but we can all see where this team is headed. The Bruins' early troubles can largely be attributed to its young roster as well as Shabazz Muhammad's shoulder injury and three-game NCAA suspension. I also think the Bruins benefited from having two older players, Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb, transfer out. That was great for chemistry. And of course, the Pac 12 is down yet (and yet) again. It would be a shock if UCLA finished below third in this league and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
UCONN (10-3): SELL
You won't lose a lot of money by holding onto this stock, but you won't make any, either. The decision to make Kevin Ollie the permanent coach may have removed an element of instability, but I also wonder if will rob this team of its edge. Since the Huskies have no postseason to play for, the desire to make sure Ollie got the job was going to be a huge motivation down the stretch. What remains now is the reality that this is a team with no inside game to speak of competing in a league known for its rugged play. UConn plays DePaul at home next Tuesday, but from there it has to play home against Notre Dame, at Louisville, and then at Pittsburgh. That means a potential 1-4 start in the Big East.
UNLV (11-2): HOLD
This is strictly a timing call. I think the Rebels are Final Four good, but they have two things working against them in the short term. First, they need to work junior forward Mike Moser back into the mix. He missed four games with a dislocated shoulder and only managed 12 minutes in his return game against North Carolina. While he was out, the team added freshman forward Khem Birch, a mid-semester transfer from Pitt. So they have a glut in the frontcourt they're going to have to work through. To top it off, UNLV's Mountain West schedule is front-loaded with difficult road games at New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State. Things are a little easier in February when New Mexico and San Diego State come to town. In the parlance of Sin City, consider them a good futures bet, but not for the short-term.
VCU (11-3): BUY
Wake up the space! The Rams are a good buy for entertainment value alone. I can't get enough of their "havoc" system -- and that's not just limited to their fullcourt pressure. VCU is also a very good halfcourt defensive team, which is why it leads the country with 12.7 steals per game. VCU has five players who are making 37 percent or better from three-point range, and three who are making over 40 percent. (Including 6-4 senior Troy Daniels, who has made 27 threes in his last three games.) Yet, they don't have anybody averaging more than 14 points per game. That means they're not susceptible to one guy having a bad night. VCU is also more capable of scoring in the post than in recent years thanks to the improvement of 6-9 junior forward Juvonte Reddic, the Rams' leading scorer and rebounder. Finally, the Atlantic 10 is not quite as strong as it appeared in the preseason. The Rams have a great chance to be atop the league standings by the time they reach their brutal final stretch that includes road games at Saint Louis, Xavier and Temple as well as a home game against Butler on March 2.
WICHITA STATE (13-1, NR): BUY-PLUS
I do not give this rating lightly, but the Shockers have earned it for two reasons. First, they have been playing solid basketball all season, with their only loss coming at Tennessee. Second, they are currently missing three starters because of injuries, including 6-8 senior forward Carl Hall, their leading scorer and rebounder. All three of those starters are expected to return at some point (Carl in the next week or so). Not only does that mean the Shockers will get even better, but it also means that Gregg Marshall has been forced to give extended minutes to players who would not have otherwise gotten the chance. To get a sense of this team's potential, consider that when it was at full strength, it won on the road at VCU on Nov. 13.
WISCONSIN (9-4): SELL
I realize the Badgers haven't generated any buzz, but I believe there is also a widely held assumption that because Bo Ryan is the coach, they will find a way to reach the NCAA tournament and perhaps win a game or two once they get there. And given Ryan's record, that is not a bad assumption. The problem is, he does not have near the quality of guard play he has had in the past. The starting point guard, Josh Gasser, was lost in the preseason to a torn ACL. He was going to set the table for the offense, but the Badgers have missed him even more at the defensive end. This team is ranked 10th in the Big Ten in defensive field goal percentage and eighth in three-point defense. It is also 287th in the country in free throw percentage. And it has to go through a stretch where it will play nine ranked teams in an 11-game span. This is not your older brother's Bo Ryan team. On this one, you've got to think with your wallet, not your heart.
XAVIER (7-6): SELL
The Musketeers managed to hang on to the vibes from their win over Butler in the season's second game, but the bottom has really fallen out. Xavier simply lost too many players from last season, which is why it has now lost five of its last six, including Wednesday night at lowly Wake Forest. Freshman guard Semaj Christon is a dynamic scorer, but his body is already wearing down, and we're barely into January. The Atlantic 10 will not be any more forgiving.
WYOMING (13-0): SELL
You gotta tip your hat to the Cowboys for being one of four undefeated teams, but this is the easiest call on the board. Obviously, a team that hasn't lost yet (against a nonconference strength of schedule that is ranked 316th in the country) has no place to go but down. Wyoming also just lost its second-leading scorer, Luke Martinez, to a broken hand. And the Mountain West is loaded.
Boise State (11-2). The Broncos played Michigan State tough in East Lansing, and they beat Creighton in Omaha. Better pay attention.
Bucknell (13-2). The Bison have a very intriguing player in 6-11 senior Mike Muscala, who is averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds per game. It will be fun watching them duel Lehigh for Patriot League supremacy.
Colorado State (12-2). The Rams start five seniors, including two fifth-year senior transfers. They also lead the nation in rebound margin.
Georgia Tech (10-2). The Yellow Jackets won a lot of games against bad teams. I don't believe yet that they're for real, but they've got me curious.
Indiana State (9-4). Sycamores have won four tough games the last two weeks: Ole Miss and Miami in Hawaii, Illinois State at home, and Northern Iowa on the road. They've got a big one at Creighton on Saturday.
La Salle (9-3). The Explorers have a dynamic guard tandem in 6-3 senior guard Ramon Galloway and 6-foot junior guard Tyreek Duren, who are both ranked in the top six in scoring in the Atlantic 10.
Loyola (Ill.) (10-3). They've won eight of their last nine, including on the road against DePaul.
Purdue (7-6). The Boilermakers lost some ugly ones in the nonconference, but in beating Illinois at home on Wednesday night, they showed they are not going to be anyone's pushover.
Saint Louis (10-3). The Billikins just got their best player, 5-10 senior guard Kwamain Mitchell, back from injury, and they scored an impressive home win over New Mexico last week.
Santa Clara (12-3). Two of the Broncos' losses were in overtime, and the third was at Duke. They have a golden opportunity to boost their stock with a home game against Gonzaga this weekend. Senior guard Kevin Foster can light it up with the best of them.
Boston College (8-5). The Eagles have lost at home to Bryant and Harvard. Tell me what was wrong with Al Skinner again?
Georgia (5-7). The Bulldogs also have some bad home losses to Youngstown State, Southern Miss and Iona.
Mississippi State (4-7). The Bulldogs needed to clean house for first-year coach Rick Ray. This is what a clean house looks like.
Nebraska (9-5). That record is a little deceiving. When the Cornhuskers have lost, it has come by enormous margins, such as their 36-point pasting at Ohio State Wednesday night.
Old Dominion (2-12). The Monarchs had a nice run recently of four NCAA tournaments in a seven-year stretch, but they have really fallen on hard times.
Penn (2-10). The days when the Quakers dominated the Ivy are a distant memory.
Siena (2-11). I'm shocked at the way this program hit the skids when Fran McCaffery left for Iowa. Just three years removed from three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the Saints aren't marching anywhere.
Texas Tech (7-4). Somehow the Red Raiders have managed to play every single game at home, with a schedule ranked 341st in the RPI. Time for reality.
USC (5-8). Last year, the Trojans could blame their poor record on a rash of injuries. This year, they're just really bad.
Wake Forest (7-5). The Demon Deacons scored a nice win at home over Xavier Wednesday night, but that's hardly reason to hope. The ACC season begins on Saturday with top-ranked Duke coming to town.