A lot of words have been spilled in the last week about Carolina's #8 ranking in the AP preseason poll, especially in comparison with Virginia Tech. The Hokies eked out second place in the ACC media poll ahead of the Heels, but on the national level garnered only a #21 ranking. Tar Heel Fan chalks it up to voters returning to UNC as a default; Al Featherston meanwhile defends the ranking, in a long comparison of Tech and Carolina this year and last. I don't think either really gets into the minds of AP voters.
Featherston's analysis is just entirely more detailed than the typical AP voter is going to make; more on what he thinks later. But I don't think it's as simple as voters just treating UNC as a default choice, either. The Heels were ranked eighth. Even the most uninterested of poll voter should be able to come up with eight teams who performed well last season and weren't denuded over the summer. No, there's something else that's putting UNC in the minds of voters, and I think its fear.
The college basketball landscape has changed since the NBA Draft age was raised before the 2006 season. Three of the last four NBA drafts had a freshman taken with the top pick, and eleven of the twenty top-five picks only spent one year in the NCAA. The last three NBA Rookies of the Year were also freshmen draft entries, which only adds to the premise that an NCAA freshman can single-handedly change a team. Sportswriters are adjusting to a new world of freshmen propelling teams to the stratosphere, and poll voters are upping the rankings of the teams that land this year's hot new thing. And this year, of course, that's Harrison Barnes.
Voters would rather overestimate the Heels on the basis on Harrison Barnes' potential than find themselves surprised by Barnes' performance come March. After all, have they forgotten Kevin Durant? Derrick Rose? Tyreke Evans?
Ironically enough, a lot of people are misremembering those teams and their freshmen performers. Not that the players weren't everything that was advertised, but the teams they joined were typically coming off pretty good years. Of the unranked teams that brought in a freshman Top 5 draft pick, only Kentucky ended the year in the polls, and they had a new coach and a whole lot of other things going on. Less than half the teams with a miracle freshman finished the year ranked higher than they had the year before, or advanced beyond the Sweet 16:
(Ohio State and Kentucky had multiple freshmen taken in the Top5, but I've only listed the top pick to save space.)
This trend, of course, doesn't bode well for UNC, coming as they are off an unranked season. But they played below their talent level last season, and have quite a few freshman coming, so I'm pretty confident they'll finish the season ranked. Just not eighth. Poll voters have been, in fact, overestimating the impact of freshmen in their preseason rankings, but not by much. That, plus the high finishes that folks remember, are going to keep teams like UNC receiving what appear to be inflated ranking for quite some time. So it's no surprise to see them where they are, or Harrison Barnes making preseason first team All-American. Freshmen have been making the postseason list for a few years now, so the poll voters are adapting. It remains to be seen whether Barnes will be able to bring UNC to the heights with him.