Stock Watch for Each Top 25 Team a Week from the Big Dance

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IMarch 11, 2014

Stock Watch for Each Top 25 Team a Week from the Big Dance

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    Associated Press

    The final Top 25 rankings of college basketball’s regular season have arrived, and not everyone is heading in the right direction as conference tournament action begins. Although high-flying programs such as Wichita State and Villanova have kept on winning, plenty of other high-ranked teams have run into late-season roadblocks.

    One such squad, surprisingly, is the Kansas Jayhawks, who closed the year by squandering a 41-point outburst from Andrew Wiggins in a loss at West Virginia. With two defeats in their last three games, Bill Self’s boys are short on momentum heading into the Big 12 tourney.

    Read on for more on KU—including which of its conference rivals is hitting on all cylinders right now—and all the rest of the season-ending risers and fallers from this week’s AP Top 25.

25. Southern Methodist

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    Lance Murphey/Associated Press

    After an extraordinary performance in AAC play overall, SMU is starting to show some cracks. The Mustangs ended the season with back-to-back losses against Louisville and Memphis, bringing their record against those league powers to 1-3 on the season.

    With road games having caused trouble for Larry Brown’s squad all year—including losses against last-place South Florida and Temple—the prospect of neutral-site postseason play isn’t all that encouraging.

    Even less encouraging: 40 turnovers in the Mustangs’ last two games, including a dozen from Nick Russell alone.

    Stock: Tumbling

24. Ohio State

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    R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    After back-to-back bad losses at Penn State and Indiana, Ohio State ended the regular season with a major sign of hope.

    Not only did the Buckeyes beat a very good Michigan State team, but they also put up 69 points, their best offensive performance since a February 19 win versus Northwestern.

    Indeed, since the beginning of February, Aaron Craft and company are 7-3 with wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State.

    Of course, only the Big Ten tournament will show whether it’s the triumph over the Spartans or the painful losses that preceded it that are really the aberration.

    Stock: Bouncing back

23. Virginia Commonwealth

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    A shaky nonconference season dropped VCU from the polls for months, but four straight wins have finally brought it back. That streak includes the Rams’ biggest victory in Atlantic 10 action, a convincing 67-56 takedown of conference champion Saint Louis.

    As the recent spurt has highlighted, Shaka Smart’s havoc defense is alive and well, leading the nation in turnovers forced per game. It’s even getting some help inside from senior Juvonte Reddic, who has a pair of double-doubles during this latest streak.

    Stock: Charging

22. Michigan State

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    Associated Press

    Thanks to a season-finale loss at Ohio State, Keith Appling’s Spartans haven’t won back-to-back games since January 21.

    Even their best wins in that span have lost some of their luster, as Iowa (whom Michigan State swept) has fallen from the Top 25 altogether.

    East Lansing hasn’t provided much of a refuge, with Tom Izzo’s team losing two of its last three at home.

    The Spartans are finally healthy, but that scenario hasnt yet been much of an improvement over their season-long battle with various injuries.

    Stock: Staggering

21. Connecticut

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    Associated Press

    If UConn had simply lost on the road to an outstanding Louisville team, the game wouldn’t have done that much damage to the Huskies’ postseason outlook after three straight wins.

    However, Shabazz Napier and company got embarrassed by the Cards, to the tune of an 81-48 dismantling that raises serious concerns about how ready they are to face tournament-caliber competition.

    Even a recent signature win over Cincinnati came with some serious concerns, including a 3-of-14 shooting effort from beyond the arc.

    Napier’s leadership will still make the Huskies a threat in tournament play, but a flailing offense could doom them in spite of his best efforts.

    Stock: Sputtering

20. New Mexico

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    Overshadowed all year by the surprising Mountain West champs from San Diego State, New Mexico fittingly closed the regular season with a loss on the Aztecs’ home floor.

    However, even that defeat—by a slender 51-48 margin—left good reason to believe that some of the team’s positive momentum is still intact.

    After all, prior to the showdown with SDSU, the Lobos had won six in a row, including a decisive 58-44 triumph over those same Aztecs at The Pit and an equally convincing road win over third-place UNLV.

    With just three losses in the calendar year (all by three points or less) and surprise star Cameron Bairstow still going strong, Craig Neal’s squad is in great shape heading into the MWC tourney.

    Stock: Climbing

19. Memphis

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    Associated Press

    The difficulty in pegging where Memphis finds itself heading into the AAC tourney isn’t just that the Tigers have alternated wins and losses since February 22.

    On top of that, Joe Jackson and company have had both losses to bad teams (16-15 Houston) and wins over great ones (26-5 Louisville) in that short span.

    Even the style Memphis has played has been inconsistent, with a shootout defeat against Cincinnati being followed immediately by a defensive grind in a 67-58 win over SMU.

    Without being able to establish momentum in either direction, the Tigers will be a major X-factor in postseason play.

    Stock: Fluctuating

18. Saint Louis

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    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    After a three-game losing streak, the Billikens finally found the light at the end of the tunnel. A nail-biting road win over a tough UMass squad provided the first sign that Jim Crews’ team has righted the ship heading into the A-10 tournament.

    Still the top seed in the conference—those three consecutive defeats were the only ones SMU suffered in league action—the Billikens are well-positioned to build on Sunday’s win.

    Whether they’ll capitalize on that chance will depend heavily on whether their defense is really back to normal after allowing 70 points per game during the skid—nine more than its season average.

    Stock: Recovering

17. Oklahoma

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    Associated Press

    Few people would’ve predicted that Oklahoma would be the Big 12’s hottest team entering the conference tournament.

    Nevertheless, here are the Sooners, winners of three straight and five of six, looking like they expected to land the league’s No. 2 seed all along.

    In that winning surge, OU has beaten Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas behind a productive offense led by Buddy Hield (18.3 points per game over the last six).

    A February slump far behind them, the Sooners are a genuine threat to upset Kansas in the Big 12 tourney.

    Stock: Soaring

16. Iowa State

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    Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

    Although Iowa State just won its second overtime thriller of the season against Oklahoma State, all is not entirely well in Ames.

    Or, more accurately, all is not well outside of Ames, where the Cyclones have dropped three of four since their triumph in Stillwater on February 3.

    Those road woes mean that ISU has still lost two of its last three overall, and it won’t have the support of perpetually raucous Hilton Coliseum for its postseason games.

    Keep an eye on Georges Niang—a no-show in losses to Baylor and Kansas State—whose performance has been a good indicator of the Cyclones’ fortunes recently.

    Stock: Wavering

15. North Carolina

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    Associated Press

    One of the hottest teams in the country since late January, North Carolina looks like it’s finally coming back to earth. Three straight narrow victories (including 63-61 at home over struggling Notre Dame) culminated in a decisive road defeat against archrival Duke.

    Losing to a Top Five team on its home floor is hardly cause for alarm, but it does end a stunning 13-game winning streak for Marcus Paige and his mates. The Tar Heels will still be a confident team entering the postseason, but no longer a superhuman one.

    Stock: Leveling off

14. Creighton

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    When Creighton runs into trouble, it has only one answer: more Doug McDermott. That proved to be the right answer Saturday, when McDermott and his 45 points sank Providence to put an end to a two-game slide.

    Of course, even with the national leader in scoring flexing his muscles, Creighton needs some semblance of offense elsewhere to beat the rest of the Big East powers.

    That means Ethan Wragge (who hasn’t reached double figures since February 19) needs to snap out of his doldrums in a hurry.

    Stock: Limping

13. Cincinnati

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    Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Thursday’s rare offensive outburst at Memphis provided a huge boost for Cincinnati for a couple of reasons.

    First, it helped turn a two-game losing skid into a two-game winning streak, with help from a victory over lowly Rutgers on Saturday. Secondly, it proved that there’s some life left in the moribund Bearcats offense.

    If Cincy can even hit its year-long average of 69.4 points per game, it will be a terror in the postseason. With Sean Kilpatrick at the forefront, the Bearcats are once again looking capable of meeting that unremarkable standard.

    Stock: Inching up

12. Wisconsin

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Wisconsin built up plenty of momentum on an eight-game winning streak that started in early February. Sunday’s implosion at Nebraska didn’t erase all of that progress, but it certainly didn’t help matters, either.

    A second-half meltdown turned a Badgers lead into a nine-point defeat in Lincoln. The 77 points Wisconsin surrendered marked its worst defensive showing since January 22.

    Unsurprisingly, defense-loving coach Bo Ryan was none too pleased by that showing, shooting down reporters who wanted to project his team as a top seed at the postgame press conference (per The Associated Press, via ESPN): "No. 1 seed for what? We're the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. That's the only thing I know."

    Stock: Dipping

11. Syracuse

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    KEVIN RIVOLI/Associated Press

    Syracuse’s season-ending pummeling of Florida State in Tallahassee was a welcome change for the struggling Orange, but it was far from enough to reverse the trend of the last few weeks.

    Four losses in its last six games have ‘Cuse on the ropes heading into the ACC tournament, even if Jerami Grant’s back really is 100 percent again.

    With Grant on the floor or without him, the Orange have been falling well short of their solid season average of 44.1 percent shooting from the field.

    They finally got back to their usual efficiency against the Seminoles, but even then, Trevor Cooney’s scoring funk continued with his sixth single-digit showing in seven games.

    Stock: Plummeting

10. Kansas

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Half of Kansas’ Big 12 losses for the year have come in its last three games. That’s hardly the way the conference’s top seed wanted to head into the league tournament, especially when the one win in that span came against sub-.500 Texas Tech.

    Just as worrisome as the Jayhawks’ results have been the performances they’re surrendering to opposing point guards.

    Naadir Tharpe is going to face plenty of high-level opponents in postseason play, and getting lit up by Marcus Smart and Juwan Staten (a combined 45 points in two KU losses) is not the most encouraging way for him to enter that gauntlet.

    Stock: Stumbling

8 (tie). San Diego State

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    Gary Kazanjian/Associated Press

    San Diego State closed its season in style on Saturday, avenging one of its only two losses in MWC play by edging New Mexico at Viejas Arena.

    The victory leaves the Aztecs’ streak at four wins in a row heading into the Mountain West tournament, not to mention six in seven games dating back to February 15.

    Unsurprisingly, the key to that run has been Xavier Thames, who scored nearly half of his team’s 51 points in beating the Lobos. With his senior floor leader firing on all cylinders, Steve Fisher has to like his chances entering the postseason.

    Stock: Rising

8 (tie). Michigan

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Momentum has been hard to come by for any of the Big Ten’s many title contenders this season. Right now, though, the Wolverines have more of it than any team in the league, courtesy of a five-game winning streak.

    To be fair, most of those wins (except a February 23 triumph over Michigan State) have come against less-than-impressive competition.

    Still, confidence is even bigger for the jump-shot-happy Maize and Blue than for most teams, and they’ve got it in spades as the Big Ten tournament opens.

    Stock: Skyrocketing

7. Duke

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Since February 22, Duke’s legendary home-court edge at Cameron Indoor Stadium has helped the Blue Devils beat the No. 1 team in the country (Syracuse) and their biggest rivals (the hated Tar Heels) in the space of four games.

    On the flip side, they’ve lost two in a row away from Durham, including an embarrassing 10-point pounding by a forgettable Wake Forest squad.

    On balance, though, the Blue Devils’ three wins in four tries are a positive sign for an enigmatic team that has lived on the edge throughout the ACC season.

    Duke can also take heart in the fact that star freshman Jabari Parker closed the regular year on a high note, shredding UNC for 11 rebounds and a season-high 30 points.

    Stock: Creeping up

6. Virginia

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s entirely possible that Virginia will recover from one of the weekend’s biggest upsets and resume playing like the regular-season ACC champs.

    On the other hand, it’s also possible that a 75-69 overtime loss to also-ran Maryland will puncture the Cavaliers’ unbeatable mystique after a 13-game ACC winning streak.

    After all, Virginia’s defensive-slowdown philosophy inevitably leaves it vulnerable to a weak shooting effort such as Sunday’s 22-of-57 performance.

    When things have gone bad for the Cavaliers this season, they’ve often gone exceedingly bad—38 points in a loss to Wisconsin—so it wouldn’t be any great surprise to see another misstep against a weaker ACC tournament foe.

    Stock: Stalling

5. Louisville

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    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    Only a March 1 road defeat against a strong Memphis team has kept Louisville from being one of the hottest teams in the country entering the postseason. The Cards have won “only” two in a row since that loss, but a remarkable nine out of 10 overall.

    In that span, Russ Smith and company have beaten Cincinnati, SMU and UConn to establish themselves as bona fide AAC co-champs.

    The latter two wins, coming back-to-back on the threshold of the conference tournament, have Michael Beller of Sports Illustrated projecting the Cards as a No. 3 seed already, and noting that they "could get a better seed if they win the conference tournament."

    Stock: Ascending

4. Arizona

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Arizona’s coronation as Pac-12 champs hit a significant speed bump in Eugene, where the Wildcats lost their season finale against unranked Oregon to snap a five-game winning streak.

    The Ducks are better than their 10-8 league record, but it’s looking like Nick Johnson and his mates may not be as good as their gaudy 15-3 figure, either.

    All three of the first-place Wildcats’ losses this season have come since Brandon Ashley broke his foot on February 1, an injury that’s put a significant dent in their half-court offense.

    If more teams can figure out ways to hold scoring leader Johnson to 4-of-12 shooting (as Oregon did on Saturday), a postseason upset could be in the offing.

    Stock: Wobbling

3. Villanova

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    In two meetings with No. 14 Creighton this year, Villanova has given up a combined 197 points in a pair of losses. In all other Big East games, the Wildcats are a perfect 16-0, including six straight wins to close the regular season.

    It’s not as though defense is normally a problem for ‘Nova, either: Jay Wright’s squad held four of those last six opponents under 60 points, as it did almost every team that visited the Wells Fargo Center this season.

    With Darrun Hilliard II scorching the nets for 17.3 points per game on the recent surge, things are looking up in Philly.

    Stock: Accelerating

2. Wichita State

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    It doesn’t get any better than 34-0. The Shockers have done all that they possibly could have, winning the Missouri Valley tournament with their perfect record intact.

    Now, all Cleanthony Early and his mates can do is wait for Selection Sunday and see what kind of draw they wind up with.

    Even if WSU can’t win it all, it’s already put together one of the best seasons of any team since the NCAA tournament expanded to a field of 64 (way back in 1985).

    Stock: Cruising

1. Florida

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    Not only has Florida not lost at all since December 2, but the Gators are undefeated when both of their standout point guards—senior Scottie Wilbekin and freshman Kasey Hill—are in the lineup.

    At this point, Florida’s stock doesn’t really have anywhere higher to go after 23 consecutive victories.

    Thanks to realignment, the Gators’ 18 SEC wins are a league record, beating even the 16-0 conference mark set by Anthony Davis’ Undeniables at Kentucky.

    Beating Kentucky is becoming a popular theme in Gainesville this year, where Casey Prather and company just closed the season by slaughtering the second-place ‘Cats for the second time in as many meetings.

    Stock: Gliding