CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina sits alone at the top, both of the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll and on the all-time list of teams with the most preseason No. 1 rankings.
The Tar Heels are determined to be there in April, too.
With nine of its top 10 scorers back, UNC enters the 2015-16 season at No. 1 for a record ninth time in AP preseason poll history, breaking a tie with UCLA.
“I do feel like we’re going to be a good basketball team,” coach Roy Williams said in a statement Monday. “I’m excited for our kids, because this is one of the best groups that I’ve ever worked with.
“We made a nice run last year but were disappointed with the way it ended. Hopefully we will use that as fuel to be the best team we can be this year.”
The Tar Heels earned 35 of 65 first-place votes to claim the top spot in Monday’s poll, keeping them ahead of No. 2 Kentucky (10 first-place votes), No. 3 Maryland (14), No. 4 Kansas (5) and reigning champion Duke at No. 5. Sixth-ranked Virginia received the other first-place vote.
North Carolina was tied for No. 1 with Kentucky in the USA Today preseason coaches poll and was picked as the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference favorite last week during the league’s media day.
“There are so many good teams, I don’t see how anybody could pick just one to be No. 1 at this point of the season,” Williams said. “But it’s certainly nice to be one of those teams under consideration.”
North Carolina was last ranked preseason No. 1 in the AP poll in 2011-12 and reached the Elite Eight that season. The Tar Heels have twice turned a preseason No. 1 ranking into a national championship, first in 1982 and again in 2009.
This year’s Tar Heels return four double-digit scorers, including preseason ACC co-player of the year Marcus Paige and returning all-ACC forward Brice Johnson.
They enter this season under the shadow of an ongoing NCAA investigation into the school’s long-running academic fraud scandal focused on courses with significant athlete enrollments.
Neither Williams nor his program are specifically cited for a violation among five NCAA charges, and it’s unclear whether the program or school will face penalties in a case likely to linger into the spring.
North Carolina won 26 games last season, played for the ACC Tournament title and took eventual NCAA finalist Wisconsin to the final minutes in last year’s Sweet 16 loss. That team had trouble closing out games, losing five – including to Wisconsin and twice to Duke – after leading by at least seven points in the second half.
If they correct those struggles, the Tar Heels could make good on their preseason promise.
“Our goal is Final Four and national championship,” sophomore Justin Jackson said during last week’s ACC media day. “And anything less than that will be a disappointment for us, because we know we have a lot of pieces and we have the right pieces to be able to make a long run.”