Let’s get this out of the way right now: it’s extremely difficult for me to put too much stock in way-too-early rankings. As Carolina fans, it’s easy to know why: more often than not we see teams like Gonzaga, Duke, and Kentucky ranking number one in the list, only for a Baylor, Virginia, or Villanova to win it all. While this sounds like it’s coming from a place of bitterness, it’s strictly coming from a place of realism. These lists are what they are: they build hype. They tell us who the teams are in college basketball that everyone should keep a close eye on going into November, and it just so happens to be that Carolina is that team this time around.
Previously ranked number five in their rankings, ESPN dubbed UNC the best team in the country in their updated top 25 list. Here is what ESPN staff writer Jeff Borzello had to say about the Heels being his top team:
No team in the country had a better April than North Carolina. The Tar Heels had four of their five starters opt to return to Chapel Hill rather than enter the NBA draft, and they also landed elite high school junior G.G. Jackson, although he does not plan to reclassify into the 2022 class. But getting four veteran starters back from a team that made the national title game and was one of the best teams in the country over the final two months of the previous season is a great starting point.
Caleb Love and R.J. Davis seemed to figure things out in the backcourt down the stretch, while Armando Bacot will be among the preseason Wooden Award favorites. Leaky Black is an elite defender. As for replacing Brady Manek, coach Hubert Davis will likely hope Puff Johnson builds on his title game performance: 11 points and six rebounds.
With the NBA Draft deadline in the rearview window, the Heels managed to keep their entire roster intact with the exception of Brady Manek (graduated) and Kerwin Walton (transfer). That means that four of the Iron Five members are returning in hopes of making it back to the Final Four, which gives the Heels perhaps their most experienced and talented starting lineup since the 2018-19 season (I still wonder what would’ve happened if Nassir Little and Cam Johnson never got sick, but such is life).
Borzello predicted that Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, Leaky Black, Puff Johnson, and Armando Bacot would all be starters, which may be accurate when the season starts. It’s hard to argue against Johnson getting the nod, but a player like Jalen Washington proving that he should be a starter right away can’t be ruled out. There’s also the elephant in the room which is the transfer portal, so we could see Hubert Davis grab another experienced big that would fill the Brady Manek-sized hole that the former Sooner left when he graduated. We may not have all of the answers when it comes to the starting lineup, but what we do know is that this Carolina team has the potential to be really, really good.
What are your thoughts about UNC’s landing spot in ESPN’s latest way-too-early rankings? Let us know in the comments below.