With stars coming back, North Carolina is unanimous preseason No. 1

Updated: October 31, 2008, 1:43 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

Eventual champion Kansas knocked off North Carolina in the semifinals of last season's NCAA tournament, but it's the Tar Heels who are the big favorite heading into the 2008-09 season.

North Carolina received all 31 first-place votes as the unanimous No. 1 in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, which was released Thursday. After losing a big chunk of their roster, the Jayhawks debut at No. 23 following a 37-3 season.

Since ESPN began participating in the coaches' poll in 1997-98 -- USA Today began the poll in 1991 -- the Tar Heels are the first unanimous preseason No. 1. They're also the top-ranked team for the second straight preseason.

The other Final Four teams from 2008 earned strong rankings. UCLA came in at No. 4 and national runner-up Memphis landed at No. 12. The Tigers and Bruins have been ranked in the coaches' Top 25 for 61 consecutive weeks, the longest active streak.

Connecticut and Louisville are No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, as the Big East set a record with seven teams among the preseason Top 25. Previously, a conference had five preseason Top 25 teams on seven occasions.

The top 10 is rounded out by Duke at No. 5; Pittsburgh sixth; Michigan State seventh; Texas eighth; Notre Dame ninth; and Purdue 10th. Duke is the only program that has been ranked every year in the preseason Top 25 since 1997-98. The Blue Devils and Michigan State have tied Kansas for the most appearances (nine) by any team in a preseason top 10.

In the history of the poll, only two preseason No. 1 teams -- Florida in 2006-07 and Connecticut in 2003-04 -- have gone on to win the national title. The eventual champs have been in the preseason top 10 in nine of the 11 years ESPN has participated in the poll.

North Carolina's candidacy as the nation's top-ranked team and national championship favorite got a significant boost last spring when player of the year Tyler Hansbrough announced he would return for his senior season. The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds in leading the Tar Heels (36-3) to the winningest season in school history while sweeping the major national player of the year awards.

Poll Positions

The top five teams in the ESPN/USA Today poll:

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• Complete ESPN/USA Today poll | Rank the 25
Hansbrough already has qualified to become the eighth player in school history to have his jersey retired and can add several more records to his résumé in his final season. He will be the first returning Associated Press national player of the year since LSU's Shaquille O'Neal in 1991.

However, Hansbrough is out of practice indefinitely with a stress reaction condition in his right shin and did not practice Thursday. Instead, he underwent an MRI that revealed the stress reaction, which if not properly treated could lead to a stress fracture, team spokesman Steve Kirschner said.

"He'll be ok," Hansbrough's father, Gene, told ESPN.com's Andy Katz. "His leg's been bothering him for a couple of weeks. It's a stress reaction and he needs to rest a bit. He just needs time to let it heal. There is no reason for him to limp through it."

Meanwhile, the Jayhawks saw three players depart early for the NBA. Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush went in the first round, while Mario Chalmers was selected in the second round. Memphis' hopes of returning to the title game were hurt when Derrick Rose declared for the draft and went No. 1 to the Chicago Bulls.

The second 10 is led by Gonzaga, which is followed by Memphis, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Miami of Florida, Marquette, Georgetown, Florida and Davidson. USC and Wisconsin (tied at No. 21), the Jayhawks, Wake Forest and Villanova round out the poll.

Kentucky was among 19 teams receiving votes, the first time the Wildcats were not part of the preseason Top 25.

Information from ESPN.com's Andy Katz and The Associated Press was used in this report.