College Sports

North Carolina Tops AP Men's Basketball Preseason Rankings

The Tar Heels are returning four of five starters after losing to the Kansas Jayhawks in the NCAA Tournament last season.

North Carolina basketball players.
David J. Phillips / AP
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North Carolina surprised just about everyone last year when a talented team led by first-year coach Hubert Davis parlayed a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament into a run to the national title game.

The Tar Heels won't be sneaking up on anyone this year.

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With four starters back from the team that lost to Kansas in New Orleans, the Tar Heels are the runaway pick as the preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25 released Monday. They earned 47 of 62 first-place votes from a national media panel to easily outdistance Gonzaga, the top preseason team the past two years.

The Bulldogs received 12 first-place votes while No. 3 Houston had one and fourth-ranked Kentucky the other two.

"As they opened up their lockers for the first practice of last year, there was a picture of the New Orleans Superdome in there. I wanted them to see where we were headed in April," Davis recalled last week. "The hard work and preparation, the practice that had to be put into place to put ourselves in position to do that. It's the same approach this year compared to last year. The only difference this year is the outside noise.

"Last year," Davis said, "the outside noise didn't think we had a chance. The outside noise this year thinks we do."

It is the 10th time that North Carolina has been preseason No. 1, breaking a tie with Duke for the most in the history of the AP poll. Of those 10, two Tar Heels teams have gone on to twice win the NCAA title: the 1981-82 team coached by Dean Smith and featuring James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan, and the 2008-09 team coached by Roy Williams and featuring Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson.

A third team, Williams' 2015-16 squad, lost the final to Villanova on Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

"Like Coach Davis always preaches, a lot of outside noise, and we don't really worry about any of that," said Caleb Love, one of the four returning starters for North Carolina along with R.J. Davis, Leaky Black and Armando Bacot.

"We just focus on our team," Love said, "and us getting better each and every day."

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The Bulldogs will once again lean on Drew Timme to deliver coach Mark Few his elusive national title. Houston has its highest preseason ranking since 1983, when the third of the Cougars' Phi Slama Jama teams reached its second consecutive title game. Kentucky has its best preseason rank since 2019, when the season ended amid the pandemic.

There was a tie at No. 5 between the Jayhawks, who raised their latest national title banner inside Allen Fieldhouse earlier this month, and Big 12 rival Baylor, which raised its own championship banner the previous season.

Duke, where Jon Scheyer replaced Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, was ranked seventh and UCLA eighth. Creighton has its best preseason ranking at No. 9, followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, TCU and Auburn.

"You don’t pay a lot attention to it when you’re picked ninth," Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. "You go to work every day and try to get better every day. It’s important we approach it the same this year."

The No. 13 Hoosiers have their first ranking since January 2019 and highest in the preseason since 2016.

Villanova, where Kyle Neptune is taking over for Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright, is No. 16, the lowest preseason ranking for the Wildcats since 2008. They were followed by Arizona, Virginia, San Diego State and Alabama.

The final five are Oregon, Michigan, Illinois, Dayton and Texas Tech.

"When I was in school as a player, I never bought into the rankings, what the media would say about our ball club. You still got to go out and play the game," Hoosiers coach Mike Woodson said. "Hell, my senior year we were ranked No. 1 and we didn’t get it done. So at the end of the day I guess it’s kind of nice for our players who haven’t experienced that. Again, you got to go out and play. I mean, you got to prove it on the basketball floor. That’s when it counts."

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.