North Carolina broke a tie with its fiercest rival and moved into one with one of college basketball’s most storied programs.
The Tar Heels, who return all five starters from the team that reached the regional finals last season, were the runaway No. 1 in The Associated Press’ men’s preseason Top 25 on Friday. It is the eighth time they have received that honor since the preseason poll started in 1961-62.
That breaks a tie with Duke, North Carolina’s Tobacco Road rival, and moves them into a tie with UCLA, the program that dominated the sport unlike any other under coach John Wooden.
"It shows that North Carolina basketball has had a tremendous level of success over a long, long period of time," coach Roy Williams said. "We are very proud of that and this is another indication of the program’s great history."
North Carolina received all but three of the No. 1 votes cast by the 65-member national media poll, finishing well ahead of Kentucky, the team that eliminated the Tar Heels last season one step from the Final Four.
With the frontcourt of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller all passing up the chance to enter the NBA draft and point guard Kendall Marshall having a chance to run the team for the whole season instead of just the last 20 games, the Tar Heels have the personnel to start the season comfortably atop the poll.
"I’m happy that people feel this positive about our team, but the great thing about college basketball is you have to get it done on the court," Williams said. "This gives us a goal and it’s up to us to work hard and be the best team we can be to reach that goal."
North Carolina has been the preseason No. 1 in three of the last five seasons. In 2008-09, the Tar Heels were a unanimous preseason No. 1 with five starters back, and that season ended with a national championship.
The Tar Heels’ other preseason No. 1s were in 2007-08 (Final Four), 1993-94 (second round), 1986-87 (regional final), 1983-84 (regional semifinals), 1981-82 (national championship) and 1977-78 (first round).
"We have the opportunity to win it all, and we have the opportunity to completely fail," Barnes has said. "It’s just a matter of we continue to stay humble and continue to take the right steps and get our way back on top like we did last year."
Ohio State, which got one first-place vote, was third and defending national champion Connecticut, which received the other two No. 1 votes, was fourth.
Kentucky has starters Terrence Jones and Darius Miller back to lead yet another outstanding recruiting class by coach John Calipari. Ohio State has All-America Jared Sullinger and senior guard William Buford back, while Connecticut has to find a way to replace All-America Kemba Walker, the all-everything guard who carried the Huskies through their 11-game winning streak to the national championship. Don’t feel too bad for Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun as freshman Andre Drummond will give the Huskies a presence under the basket.
Syracuse, Duke, Vanderbilt, Florida, Louisville and Pittsburgh rounded out the top 10.
Memphis was 11th followed by Baylor, Kansas, Xavier, Wisconsin, Arizona, UCLA, Michigan, Alabama and Texas A&M. The last five teams were Cincinnati, Marquette, Gonzaga, California and Missouri.
Fourteen of the teams in the preseason poll were ranked in last season’s final poll. Ohio State was No. 1 entering the NCAA tournament and the Buckeyes lost to Kentucky in the regional semifinals.
Duke was No. 1 in the 2010-11 preseason poll and went on to finish third in the final poll before losing to Arizona in the regional semifinals. Connecticut wasn’t ranked before last season but worked its way to No. 9 in the final poll.
Vanderbilt had the longest stretch of not being in the preseason Top 25. The Commodores were last in the rankings in 1993-94. Xavier was next with its last preseason appearance in 2002-03, while Cincinnati was last in 2003-04.
Vanderbilt has all the starters back from a team that came on strong at the end of the regular season only to be knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round by Richmond.
"There has been some fixation on our early exits from the tournament, but we have been very excited about this team for a very long time. For good reason, we have good players," coach Kevin Stallings said. "If this team can stay healthy, I think we have a chance to have the best team we have ever had."
The Big East has six ranked teams, two more than the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 had three each. Even with all the offcourt doings in the Big East — Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving, TCU never really showing up and some others ready to head elsewhere — the conference that set the record for teams in an NCAA tournament last season is going to be tough again.
"In the past five years we’ve had the best basketball league in the country," Calhoun said. "We had 11 teams in the NCAA tournament last year and on paper today nine of them would be in it again."
Duke has the longest current streak of being ranked at 78 polls, a run that started with the preseason poll in 2007-08. Kansas is next with 46, a streak that began on Feb. 2, 2009.