Who to buy and sell? We have all the answers
Posted: Tuesday January 2, 2007 3:59PM; Updated: Tuesday January 2, 2007 5:14PM
Happy New Year, Hoopheads. As we all know, the new year signifies a new season in college hoops as conference play finally gets underway. That means teams are going to have to board real buses and airplanes to play real games against real teams.
So it is my pleasure to once again issue my fourth annual turn-of-the-calendar reality check for college basketball in a Stock Report. My purpose here is not to rank the teams or figure out who will go furthest into March. Instead, I have assessed the current value of 20 teams as reflected in their records, rankings and standing in the mysterious land of conventional wisdom. Then I have projected whether those values will rise, fall or hold steady for the foreseeable future. In other words, just because I rate one team a Buy and another team a Sell does not mean that I think the first team is better than the second. It's all relative in this market.
Here, then, is my report (no need to send me commissions):
Everything is falling into place for the Wildcats to make a legitimate run at the national championship. Chase Budinger is as good as advertised, and don't look now but Mustafa Shakur is demonstrating a deft shooting touch (53.1 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from three, up from 42.3 and 33.3 as a junior). I also think J.P. Prince's decision to transfer eliminates a potential chemistry problem. Some people might see Zona's lack of depth as a concern, but that will be only be a problem if someone else gets into foul trouble, gets injured or falls ill. If you can only watch two more games this season, I'd recommend both meetings between Arizona and UCLA.
I'd think even the most diehard Tigers fans would have to agree with me on this one. Clemson does have some decent wins during its 14-0 start, including a four-point victory at Old Dominion and a 15-point home win over a pretty good Georgia squad, but what have the Tigers done to merit Top 25 consideration (23rd in the AP poll, 18th in the coaches poll). Perhaps Clemson will prove me wrong and go on a tear in the ACC, but if the Tigers don't, their non-conference slate is so weak that even a .500 record in the ACC won't guarantee an NCAA bid. Clemson is very athletic and has an emerging player in vastly improved sophomore swingman K.C. Rivers, but with three of its first four ACC games on the road and home games against Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Boston College coming up, Clemson could very well be 3-5 in the ACC midway through conference play.
With just one junior and no seniors, this is the youngest Duke team since World War II, so you have to give the Blue Devils credit for making it this far with just one loss. But if you've followed them closely, do you really believe this is the fifth-best team in the country? Greg Paulus played the best game of his career against Gonzaga and Josh McRoberts seems to be realizing he needs to play more like a center than a shooting guard, but this young group will certainly stumble once it gets into the teeth of ACC play. If last year's J.J. Redick-Shelden Williams-led group couldn't get past the Sweet 16, it's hard to imagine this one will.
When evaluating the Gators, you have to keep your eye on the big picture. They might struggle in tough road environments like Florida State or take too long to wake up and beat weaker foes like UAB. But as they showed in dismantling Ohio State, the Gators know how to play their best when their best is required (as John Wooden likes to say). This is still the best passing team in the country, so the only question from game to game is how healthy they are, how inspired they are defensively and how effectively Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey and Walter Hodge shoot from the outside. While I expect Florida to lose a few more games and possibly fail to win the SEC tournament, this team will still be on the short list of championship favorites come March.
The Zags have now lost four of their last five games and have fallen out of the rankings. How much further can they fall, though? They will probably go undefeated again in a weak West Coast Conference, though the flip side is it will be hard to notch any noticeable wins and thus climb back into the Top 25. (The one exception comes Feb. 17, when Gonzaga hosts Memphis.)
With a lethal combination of talent and experience, Brandon Rush and Kansas are an overwhelming favorite to repeat as Big 12 champion. It seems like every time I say or write something positive about the Jayhawks, they go out and lose to a team they should beat. (You may want to buy short on South Carolina before it hosts KU this weekend.) But remember that Kansas also started off slow last season before getting hot and surging to the Big 12 title, so it's logical to guess the same thing is about to happen -- especially with the league having a bit of a down year. I still think this Jayhawks team has the best combination of talent and experience in the country, and as long as Brandon Rush doesn't have another protracted cold shooting spell, the wins will keep on coming.
Even though the Terps aren't ranked in the Top 25, they are off to a 13-2 start and won the NIT tipoff tournament, so I sense people think of them as a squad ready to challenge North Carolina for the ACC championship. But I see Maryland's early success as a product of its athleticism and defense being ahead of other teams' offenses early in the season. As the Terps get into league play, their difficulty scoring in the halfcourt and propensity to turn the ball over will hurt them. The league schedule favors Maryland at the start, so if you want to hold onto this stock for another week or two, be my guest. Just be ready to pull the trigger at a moment's notice.
The Tigers have had a pretty rough start to the season, blowing a big first-half lead against Georgia Tech in Maui and getting embarrassed by 18 points to their cross-state rivals in Knoxville. But they're starting to show the progress you'd expect from such a young team. (I especially like the steady improvement of 6-foot-11 sophomore Kareem Cooper.) Given how down Conference USA is right now, Memphis might not lose a game in league play. If that's the case, they could go into the NCAA tournament with only five losses and earn a high seed.
Michigan State: Sell
Few coaches can get more out of what they have than Tom Izzo, but the rubber is about to seriously burn the pavement in East Lansing. Despite losing a ton of talent from last year and suffering injuries to two of its top four scorers (freshman forward Raymar Morgan and sophomore guard Maurice Joseph), the Spartans are 13-2 and ranked 24th in the coaches' poll. Yet, outside of a two-point victory over an extremely young Texas team playing its third game, Michigan State does not have a single quality win. It will be a lot harder for this team to score points against other Big Ten teams, and defensively the Spartans will really miss Matt Trannon, the football player who opted not to come out for hoops this year.
The Wolf Pack are 12-1 and just knocked off Gonzaga in Seattle on Saturday, yet they're only 21st in the AP poll. (The coaches have this one right for once, putting Nevada at No. 15.) I suppose Nevada's lack of national TV exposure will make it hard for this team to generate a lot of buzz until the tournament, but make no mistake -- this is a veteran, talented squad, anchored by (but not limited to) 6-11 senior forward Nick Fazekas, who is ranked first in the nation in rebounding (12.8 per game) and 22nd in scoring (20.6).
Oklahoma State: Hold
I like this team, but with the Cowboys 13-1 and ranked 12th in both polls, how much higher can they go? Their two best victories were a four-point win over a middling Syracuse team in Madison Square garden and a double overtime victory over Pittsburgh in Oklahoma City. To be sure, there's plenty of reason to believe the winning will continue. The Pokes play typical Suttonesque defense (though they are without one of their most athletic defenders, 6-5 freshman Obi Muonelo, who is out after having surgery on his leg). They are also very efficient on offense despite getting spotty production from sophomore point guard Byron Eaton. I don't see Oklahoma State losing games to teams it should beat, but I do wonder just how high its ceiling is. Next week's date at Kansas should give a pretty good indication.
The Ducks are 13-0 for the first time in 69 years, they're ranked 16th and 17th in the writers and coaches' polls, respectively, and they play UCLA at home on Saturday. There may never be a better time to sell them off. Their lone impressive nonconference win came Nov. 29 at Georgetown. Otherwise, it's been mostly home dates with the likes of Lehigh, Bethune-Cookman and the mighty Mercer Bears. I still like this team to make the NCAA tournament, but with no interior defensive presence to speak of, you can expect plenty of tough nights in the resurgent Pac-10.
I liked Pittsburgh a lot at the start of the year, but this rating is more a reflection on the relative weakness of the Big East than on what the Panthers have shown thus far. They lost their only two tough road tests, including getting embarrassed at Wisconsin, and despite their reputation for playing suffocating defense they are only creating 5.1 steals per game. Still, Aaron Gray's size and poise will serve this team well in a conference where toughness in the paint is a must. I also like the offensive dimension East Carolina transfer Mike Cook has added to this team.
I like to Buy young teams that appear to be getting better, and Sell veteran teams that look like they're headed in the wrong direction. Demetris Nichols has been fabulous for the Orange, but Eric Devendorf, perhaps the team's most important player, has lost his starting position because of a long shooting slump. Freshman sensation Paul Harris is having trouble creating offense in the halfcourt, and I've given up on expecting Darryl Watkins and Terrence Roberts to be consistent inside scorers. The Orange have a great chance to improve their value against Pittsburgh in the Carrier Dome on Thursday night, but they do not look like a team poised to make a run at the Big East title.
Freshmen Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin have been impressive, but fellow frosh Justin Mason has been the 'Horns' biggest surprise. This could be the easiest call on the board. If Texas had won at Tennessee instead of blowing a 17-point first-half lead and losing in overtime, its stock might reflect its real value. As it stands, the Longhorns remain unranked yet absolutely loaded with young talent that gets better with each game. You know about Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, but 6-2 freshman Justin Mason has been on a tear of late, averaging 13.5 points over his last four games. The Longhorns still need to develop more of an inside game, but they are doing a better job playing defense and getting to the foul line. They'll stub their toe here and there during Big 12 play, but believe me, nobody will want to play this team in the NCAA tournament.
Texas A&M: Buy
For a team currently ranked 11th in both polls, the Aggies don't seem to be generating much discussion. That's partly because they lost two games against highly-ranked teams (LSU and UCLA) and partly because they play a distinctly unglamorous style predicated on toughness and defense. But nobody played UCLA as well as the Aggies did, and they should be able to plow through the Big 12 without losing games they should win. If A&M can continue to get consistent outside shooting from sophomore guard Josh Carter, it will pose a serious threat to Kansas' hopes of winning the regular season league title.
To give the No. 1 team in the country a Buy, I'd have to be saying they're a virtual shoo-in to reach the Final Four. That is what I'm saying. More than any other team in the country, the Bruins are capable of winning a game against a quality opponent in the NCAA tournament even when they're having an off night. Their only weakness is a lack of a Ryan Hollins-type big man, but if Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison keep shooting the way they have (51.5 percent combined, 43.6 percent from three-point range), it's hard to envision anyone preventing UCLA from getting to Atlanta.
As I said, I love to buy young teams this time of year, but I can't shake the nagging sense that this team is going to have a hard time growing up fast during Big East play. Even more than last year's veteran squad, these Huskies could have used some early road tests, but of course that is just not Jim Calhoun's scheduling philosophy. Freshman center Hasheem Thabeet is incredibly raw and susceptible to foul trouble. The best outside shooter, sophomore A.J. Price, is also the point guard. And as a team, UConn is ranked next to last in the Big East in free throw shooting (65.2 percent). I'm surprised UConn only dropped to 14th in the coaches' poll and 18th in the AP poll after its loss at West Virginia. I think the Huskies have much further to fall before beginning their rise.
My quibble with Washington isn't its youth. My larger concern is this team's dearth of playmaking scorers on the perimeter. The Huskies' best long-range shooter, Ryan Appleby, requires choreographed screens and sets to get open, and as a team they're committing almost 18 turnovers a game. I was tempted to rate them a Sell, but after opening league play with losses at USC and UCLA last weekend, I think this stock's value took a hit (20th coaches' poll, 24th AP) and is probably going to stay where it is for a while.
Wichita State: Buy
The Shockers are in the midst of a bubble-bursting four-game losing streak that has dropped them out of the rankings. You know what that means: Scoop 'em up! Perhaps they were overvalued as a top-10 team, but I do think they expended a lot of emotional energy starting off 9-0 against a difficult schedule, and that has caught up with them. (Also keep in mind that Wichita State's most important player, P.J. Cousinard, did not play during the loss to New Mexico because of a stomach virus.) The Shockers are a good shooting team, but if they're not making outside shots they don't have a great Plan B. Still, they will be toughened during conference play and will be at least as well-prepared for the NCAA tournament as last year's Sweet 16 crew was.
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