A daunting scenario faced Hubert Davis in his first season as North Carolina coach: Not only was he taking over one of the top jobs in college basketball, Davis was in the shadow of a legend a short drive down Tobacco Road.
Mike Krzyzewski, the sport’s all-time wins leader and the coach of the Tar Heels’ blue-blood rival, was headed into his final season at Duke. Coach K embarked on his celebrated retirement tour with a talented team capable of contending for the NCAA title.
It got ugly in early February, when Krzyzewski handed Davis a 20-point beating in Chapel Hill. Less than two weeks later, North Carolina was upset on its home floor by Pittsburgh, dropping the Tar Heels to 18-8 and onto the NCAA tournament bubble. Davis was not getting the job done.
But from that point forward, no coach did more impressive work than Davis. The Tar Heels won their next five games and spoiled Krzyzewski’s emotional finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium by stunning the Blue Devils 94-81 in early March.
Eventually, the road to the Final Four set the stage for a Carolina-Duke trilogy in New Orleans on April 2. Caleb Love scored 28 points, Armando Bacot grabbed 21 rebounds and the Tar Heels took down Duke 81-77 in a bitter end to the Krzyzewski era.
Davis did not get his storybook ending, either. Two days later, North Carolina squandered a 15-point halftime lead and lost to Kansas 72-69 in the NCAA championship game. Still, Davis proved he’s the right man for the job, and his Tar Heels are back for more with the same point guard, Love, and power forward, Bacot, leading the way.
The Jayhawks were the No. 1 team in my preseason power ratings last year, when most prognosticators were picking Gonzaga in the top spot.
In last year’s Associated Press preseason poll, North Carolina checked in at No. 19; in my preseason power ratings, the Tar Heels were No. 15. The second-best team at the end of last season is the No. 1 team in my power ratings for the 2022-23 season.
Admittedly, preseason ratings are an inexact science and a team rating in early November is based mostly on opinion. The ratings are likely to fluctuate a lot the first two months with more data and results to take into consideration. A team’s rating is based solely on coaching and the level of talent on the roster from top to bottom.
North Carolina has depth and experience, with juniors Love and RJ Davis in the backcourt. Bacot, a 6-foot-11 senior, is the top returning scorer and rebounder in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Leaky Black, a 6-9 senior, is a defensive force on the front line next to Bacot.
Northwestern transfer Pete Nance, a 6-10 senior, is expected to fill the inside-outside shooter role vacated by the team’s only departed star, Brady Manek. The Tar Heels are also counting on contributions from junior wing Puff Johnson, sophomore guard Dontrez Styles and freshmen Tyler Nickel, Will Shaver, Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington.
The Tar Heels rate highly in 3-point shooting, dribble-drive scoring, interior defense and rebounding. The coach is up to the challenge, too. There are 363 Division-I teams, and North Carolina opens the season with the highest rating of 88 (100 is the top of my scale).
Remember, the Tar Heels actually turned a rare trick not long ago, losing in the 2016 NCAA title game and rebounding to win the championship in 2017 under former coach Roy Williams.
Can they do it again?
Here is the rest of my preseason Top 50:
2. KENTUCKY -- It all starts with Oscar Tshiebwe, a 6-9 senior who averaged 17.4 points and 15.1 rebounds last season. He’s a walking double-double and the best big man in the nation. Tshiebwe’s status for November is in question after minor knee surgery. Coach John Calipari has experienced returnees in point guard Sahvir Wheeler and senior Jacob Toppin, a 6-9 power forward. CJ Fredrick (Iowa) and Antonio Reeves (Illinois State) are transfers who can hit 3s in bunches. Of course, Calipari also has a couple of freshmen with NBA futures -- guards Chris Livingston and Cason Wallace. After getting stunned by Saint Peter’s in the first round of last season’s NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have the firepower to reach the Final Four.
3. HOUSTON -- Senior guard Marcus Sasser is ready to be a star and returns after a foot injury limited him to 12 games last season. Junior guards Tramon Mark and Jamal Shead complement Sasser. The freshman class features guard Terrance Arceneaux and 6-8 Jerace Walker, the nation’s top-ranked power forward recruit. Kelvin Sampson is an outstanding defensive coach and has a roster loaded with versatile athletes. The Cougars, who allowed 58.8 points per game last season, are likely to rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency.
4. UCLA -- Leading scorer Johnny Juzang is gone, but coach Mick Cronin reloaded with two five-star freshmen -- guard Amari Bailey and 6-10 Adem Bona. Point guard Tyger Campbell and forward Jaime Jaquez remain as leaders from the 2021 Final Four team, so Cronin has experience to go with an abundance of young talent. Jaquez was playing on an injured ankle in a Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina last year. The Bruins can be title contenders if junior guard Jaylen Clark and 6-10 Mac Etienne mature into major roles.
5. GONZAGA -- The Bulldogs were the favorites to win the NCAA title each of the past two years, but they came up short with teams led by stars Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren. This Zags team is not as talented, and probably overrated again. Senior forward Drew Timme is a mainstay. Timme averaged 18.4 PPG for the nation’s highest-scoring offense (87.2 PPG). Coach Mark Few reeled in Chattanooga transfer guard Malachi Smith, the top player in the Southern Conference, to go with returnees Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther in the backcourt.
6. KANSAS -- Bill Self just won his second national title (and first since 2008), but a repeat seems unlikely after the Jayhawks lost guards Ochai Agbaji and Remy Martin and dominant big man David McCormack. However, don’t feel sorry for Self because his next wave of stars has arrived -- highly-touted freshmen Gradey Dick, MJ Rice and Ernest Udeh. The new team leader will be junior forward Jalen Wilson.
7. BAYLOR -- The Bears reached No. 1 in the polls last season and tied Kansas for the Big 12 regular-season title. Matthew Mayer is the biggest loss from that team, but coach Scott Drew has additions. Drew’s top recruit is guard Keyonte George, who has the NBA in his near future. LJ Cryer and Langston Love return after each suffered season-ending injuries. Adam Flagler and 6-10 Flo Thamba are now seniors who played roles on the 2021 NCAA championship team. Drew had a combined 55-9 record the past two seasons.
8. DUKE -- The coach has changed, but the recruiting story remains the same. Jon Scheyer, Krzyzewski’s former right-hand man, signed three of the nation’s top-ranked freshmen. The headliner is 7-1 Dereck Lively II, who’s joined by 6-11 Kyle Filipowski and 6-6 Dariq Whitehead. While it might take some time for Scheyer to put the puzzle together, he’s got exciting new pieces on this team, and junior point guard Jeremy Roach can be a coach on the floor.
9. TEXAS -- In this era of radical roster turnover, bet on the best coaches to make it work. Chris Beard coached the Longhorns to their first NCAA tournament win since 2014, and his second team in Austin has Final Four potential. Leading scorers Timmy Allen and Marcus Carr return as seniors. Beard brought in transfer guards Tyrese Hunter (Iowa State) and Sir’Jabari Rice (New Mexico State) to blend with elite recruits Dillon Mitchell and Arterio Morris. Texas recently blasted Arkansas 90-60 in a scrimmage.
10. TENNESSEE -- In March, coach Rick Barnes’ teams typically exit early; in November, everything looks good on paper. Senior guard Santiago Vescovi, a strong defender who made 102 3-pointers last season, is one of the top players in the SEC. Josiah-Jordan James is another senior in the backcourt. Barnes has brought in a bunch of promising newcomers, led by 6-8 freshman Julian Phillips. The Volunteers could top last season’s 27 wins.
11. OREGON -- If 7-foot freshman Kel’el Ware develops and lives up to the hype, the Ducks could have the best front line in the nation. Ware is surrounded by 7-foot sophomore Nate Bittle, 6-11 senior N’Faly Dante and 6-8 senior Quincy Guerrier. Senior point guard Will Richardson runs the show for Dana Altman, who’s a good recruiter and a better coach. The wild card on the roster is guard Tyrone Williams, who averaged 27.7 points to lead all junior-college scorers.
12. INDIANA -- Trayce Jackson-Davis’ game was not ready for the NBA, so the junior forward was wise to return to Bloomington. He could be the Big Ten’s top player and carry the Hoosiers to a league championship. Senior Xavier Johnson is a tough point guard. Jalen Hood-Schifino, Kaleb Banks, CJ Gunn and Malik Reneau arrive as freshmen to give coach Mike Woodson a much better team than he had in his 21-14 debut season.
13. CREIGHTON -- The Bluejays might deserve the Top 10 hype they are getting, and they might be underrated here, but they might also lack elite athletes. This team will shoot the 3, score inside and defend. Senior guard Baylor Scheierman hit 47% of his 3-pointers at South Dakota State last season and joins a veteran roster highlighted by guard Ryan Nembhard, forward Arthur Kaluma and 7-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner. Coach Greg McDermott has prime steak on the menu Omaha.
14. TEXAS CHRISTIAN -- Offensive shortcomings usually hold back coach Jamie Dixon’s teams, but this has the potential to be his best team in seven years in Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs were a shot away from reaching the Sweet 16, taking an excruciating overtime loss to Arizona in the second round. Mike Miles Jr. returns as one of the league’s elite guards, and there is frontcourt experience with Emanuel Miller, Chuck O’Bannon Jr. and 6-11 Eddie Lampkin Jr. TCU returns five starters and 92.5% of its scoring.
15. ARIZONA -- Tommy Lloyd, the former top assistant to Mark Few at Gonzaga, proved he can reload immediately. Lloyd took over a team predicted to finish in the lower half of the league and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The new-look Wildcats are not improved, but don’t underestimate Lloyd’s second team in Tucson. Junior guard Kerr Kriisa is a 3-point bomber, 6-11 Azuolas Tubelis scores inside and out, and Lloyd could have enough incoming talent to make up for the departures of stars Bennedict Mathurin and Christian Koloko.
16. ARKANSAS -- Fiery coach Eric Musselman is feasting at McDonald’s -- by signing All-Americans. Only Duke signed a higher-ranked recruiting class. After the Razorbacks lost five starters from their Elite Eight team, Musselman inked guards Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr., Barry Dunning, Joseph Pinion and Derrian Ford plus forward Jordan Walsh. A new, young team could start slowly, but it should mature and be much better by March.
17. MICHIGAN -- Hunter Dickinson, a 7-1 junior, is arguably the best big man in the Big Ten. Duke graduate transfer Joey Baker adds needed 3-point shooting and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn can run the point. Freshman forward Jett Howard, son of coach Juwan Howard, is skilled on the perimeter and will play immediately along with freshman center Tarris Reed. The Wolverines will be good, but there’s not much separating the top eight teams in their league.
18. TEXAS TECH -- Senior forward Kevin Obanor is the top returner from the Sweet 16 team. Fardaws Aimaq, a 6-11 senior transfer from Utah Valley, was heavily recruited and turned into a major get for the Red Raiders. Aimaq, a double-double machine in the WAC, recently suffered a broken foot and might not see action until January. Aimaq’s status changes this team’s rating -- and it drops dramatically if he’s out. Coach Mark Adams, who went 27-10 last season after taking over when Beard left for Texas, also recruited Oregon transfer guard De’Vion Harmon and freshmen Elijah Fisher and Lamar Washington.
19. MIAMI -- Follow the money. The Hurricanes will be led by guards Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack, a transfer from Kansas State. Pack reportedly received an NIL deal for $800,000 plus a car for two years. Wong demanded his own similarly lucrative deal to stay. Wong and senior forward Jordan Miller played major roles on the Canes’ run to the Elite Eight. Miami’s strength is its depth and its weakness is a lack of size, but the guards are money players.
20. VILLANOVA -- The Wildcats have been hit hard by injuries in the offseason, so give this team time to come together. The talent is there for coach Kyle Neptune in his first season replacing Jay Wright. Freshman forward Cam Whitmore has an NBA future, but he recently needed thumb surgery. Returning guards Caleb Daniels and Justin Moore are also trying to come back from injuries. Villanova will miss Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels from the Final Four team.
21. ILLINOIS -- Brad Underwood is a no-excuses coach who refuses to say he’s rebuilding after losing his top five scorers, including 7-footer Kofi Cockburn. Underwood recruited three highly-touted guards -- Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris -- and added Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer and Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannon. The Illini will be fighting for a Big Ten title.
22. PURDUE -- Despite the departures of Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams, the Boilermakers have plenty of scorers surrounding 7-4 Zach Edey. Other returnees are Mason Gillis, Caleb Furst, Ethan Morton and Brandon Newman. Trey Kaufman-Renn, Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith will contribute as freshmen. Point guard David Jenkins Jr., who has played at South Dakota State, UNLV and Utah, has made 323 3-pointers in his career.
23. SAN DIEGO STATE -- Senior guard Matt Bradley is strong on both ends of the floor and might be the best player in the Mountain West. The Aztecs, who ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (58.1 PPG) last season, also bring back senior forward Nathan Mensah. Coach Brian Dutcher reloaded with newcomers, highlighted by 6-7 freshman Miles Byrd. This team will get to test its strength in the Maui Invitational before Thanksgiving.
24. VIRGINIA -- No opposing team is ever excited to play the Cavaliers, who grind on the defensive end. Coach Tony Bennett’s top six scorers return, which is a positive even for a team that was awful offensively. Senior point guard Kihei Clark, still around from the 2019 NCAA title team, runs the slow-down show. Virginia allowed 60.1 points per game, the best mark in the ACC, yet scored only 62.4. Bennett needs offense from senior forwards Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio.
25. DAYTON -- Never forget the Flyers team that was getting 200-1 NCAA title odds before the 2019-2020 season and was in position to get a No. 1 seed when the tournament was canceled because of COVID. (Bad beat for me.) Coach Anthony Grant returns five starters from a 24-win team. Sophomore forward DaRon Holmes II is primed to be a breakout star, and 3-point threat Kobe Elvis has a good game and great name.
26. TEXAS A&M -- Buzz Williams bawled about being snubbed from the NCAA tournament, but he also coached the Aggies to an eight-game losing streak in SEC play. Williams brings back four starters -- led by senior guard Tyrece Radford and 6-8 power forward Henry Coleman III -- and adds transfers Dexter Dennis (Wichita State) and Julius Marble II (Michigan State), among others. A&M is too talented to again sit on the bubble in March.
27. XAVIER -- Exiled from Arizona and packing baggage, Sean Miller returns to Cincinnati to coach the Musketeers for his second tour -- after going to four NCAA tournaments from 2004-2009. Miller inherits a tough threesome in junior guard Colby Jones, senior forward Zach Freemantle and 7-foot senior Jack Nunge. Miller is good at what he does and he’s got enough talent to compete for a Big East championship.
28. CONNECTICUT -- Dan Hurley will coach the Huskies into the Big East title picture, too. Hurley went 23-10 last season and has a new-look team led by 6-9 junior Adama Sanogo and guards Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson. UConn will be a sharp 3-point shooting team that defends the rim. Sanogo is a man in the middle.
29. RUTGERS -- Don’t sleep on the Scarlet Knights and coach Steve Pikiell, who has his team climbing the Big Ten ladder. Clifford Omoruyi, a 6-11 sophomore, is the toughest big man in the league. Senior guard Caleb McConnell is an elite defender, and junior Paul Mulcahy is a point guard who plays the right way. Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker will be missed, but Pikiell has players waiting to step up.
30. OKLAHOMA -- Grant Sherfield, a transfer guard who averaged 18.8 points in two years at Nevada, is a wild-card scorer who could make the Sooners much better than the experts think. Porter Moser, who coached Loyola-Chicago to the Final Four in 2018, already had a strong front line with veteran forwards Tanner Groves, Jacob Groves and Jalen Hill. Moser won 19 games in his first season in Norman and is a good bet to top that number.
31. NOTRE DAME -- Mike Brey’s 22nd season in South Bend, Ind., was surprisingly good. After a slow start, the Fighting Irish finished 24-11. Leading scorer Blake Wesley is gone to the NBA and his replacement appears to be five-star freshman combo guard JJ Starling. Brey is banking on Starling, Niagara grad transfer Marcus Hammond and seniors Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski to provide most of the scoring.
32. OHIO STATE -- Brice Sensabaugh, a 6-6 freshman who was Florida’s Mr. Basketball, headlines coach Chris Holtmann’s touted recruiting class. Sensabaugh is a big-time scorer who can put on dunking and 3-point shooting exhibitions. The Buckeyes must replace seven of their top eight scorers, but Holtmann went to the transfer portal to get shooting guard Sean McNeil (West Virginia) and point guard Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State).
33. AUBURN -- Due to coach Bruce Pearl’s recruiting prowess, the Tigers will be fine after losing Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler to the NBA. Junior guards K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. lead a deep team. Pearl will use a lot of four-guard lineups and his best big man might be 6-10 freshman Yohan Traore, a five-star recruit.
34. WYOMING -- San Diego State is not going to coast to the Mountain West title because the experienced Cowboys are on the Aztecs’ tail. Junior forward Graham Ike and senior guard Hunter Maldonado are the conference’s top two returning scorers. Four transfers from the Pac-12 -- Max Agbonkpolo (USC), Ethan Anderson (USC), Jake Kyman (UCLA) and Brendan Wenzel (Utah) -- relocated to Laramie and will make this team more dangerous.
35. ALABAMA -- Senior guard Jahvon Quinerly plans to return from a knee injury in January, so the first couple of months could be a slow roll for the Crimson Tide. Coach Nate Oats will rely on junior guard Mark Sears, a transfer from Ohio, and a freshman class loaded with talent until Quinerly makes his comeback. Oats needs to run a tighter ship because poor shot selection and shoddy defense made Alabama appear to be poorly coached last season.
36. SAINT LOUIS -- With four of the top 15 players in the Atlantic 10, the Billikens are probably better than this projection. This is a guard-heavy team led by veterans Yuri Collins, Gibson Jimerson, Javonte Perkins and Javon Pickett. Freshman guard Larry Hughes II is highly touted.
37. MEMPHIS -- The Tigers, who pushed Gonzaga to the wire in a second-round NCAA tournament loss, are reloading with transfers. Coach Penny Hardaway lured senior guards Emmanuel Akot (Boise State), Kendric Davis (SMU) and Keonte Kennedy (UTEP). Davis is one of the nation’s top point guards.
38. FLORIDA -- The Gators hope they snagged their next Billy Donovan by hiring coach Todd Golden away from San Francisco. Golden is young, 37, and preaches analytics. He’s working on a roster makeover, but he did inherit 6-11 senior Colin Castleton and added a key piece by getting four-year starting guard Kyle Lofton to transfer from St. Bonaventure.
39. FLORIDA STATE -- Coach Leonard Hamilton is rebuilding, but he expects to win at the same time by leaning on 6-11 freshman Baba Miller, sophomore guard Matthew Cleveland, junior guard Caleb Mills and senior guard Darin Green Jr., a transfer from Central Florida. Hamilton has another roster full of athletes and size, so the potential is there.
40. OKLAHOMA STATE -- Cowboys coach Mike Boynton is a good recruiter who has built a deep, talented roster, and there’s not a big gap between the Big 12 favorites and Oklahoma State. Three starters return -- backcourt stars Avery Anderson III and Bryce Thompson, a former Kansas transfer, and 7-1 Moussa Cisse -- for a motivated team that is now free from an NCAA postseason ban.
41. PENN STATE -- Keep an eye on Nittany Lions coach Micah Shrewsberry, a former Butler, Purdue and Boston Celtics assistant. Shrewsberry went 14-17 in his first season, but he signed an impressive five-man freshman class that will put this program on the rise. Senior guards Myles Dread, Seth Lundy and Jalen Pickett are returning starters.
42. MICHIGAN STATE -- It’s no fluke that Tom Izzo has coached the Spartans to 24 consecutive NCAA tournaments, but this team is not a lock to get there. Izzo needs senior forwards Malik Hall and Joey Hauser and junior guards A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker to carry a large group of newcomers. The top freshman is guard Trejuan Holloman.
43. VIRGINIA TECH -- It’s easy to forget the Hokies beat Duke and North Carolina on the way to the ACC tournament title. It’s easy to forget that because they were knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Senior guards Hunter Cattoor and Justyn Mutts are the only two starters to return, and coach Mike Young has a class of seven newcomers.
44. USC -- Senior guards Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson rank among the top 10 players in the Pac-12, but coach Andy Enfield has several holes to fill. The Trojans’ front line has horses, but 7-1 freshman Vince Iwuchukwu is not yet cleared to play after collapsing during a workout in July. Big men Tre White, Kijani Wright and Joshua Morgan, a transfer from Long Beach State, will play right away.
45. IOWA -- A Big Ten tournament title, followed by a first-round NCAA tournament loss, made the Hawkeyes’ 26-win season bittersweet. Sweet-shooting star Keegan Murray was an NBA lottery pick, but his brother, Kris Murray, is still in Iowa City to make life easier on coach Fran McCaffery. This program is a family affair. The coach is counting on two of his sons, Connor and Patrick, to step into bigger roles.
46. WISCONSIN -- The Badgers will look a lot different without leading scorers Johnny Davis and Brad Davison, who led the team to a share of the Big Ten title. Coach Greg Gard overachieved last season and needs to do so again, which will be tough without Davis. The three returning starters are point guard Chucky Hepburn, junior forward Tyler Wahl and 7-footer Steve Crowl.
47. STANFORD -- In his seventh season with the Cardinal, coach Jerod Haase is shooting for his first NCAA tournament trip. NBA prospect Harrison Ingram, senior Spencer Jones and Davidson transfer Michael Jones lead a more promising team.
48. UAB -- Jordan “Jelly” Walker is a big-time scorer who averaged 20.3 PPG last season. The senior point guard is one of three returning starters from a 27-8 team, and coach Andy Kennedy hit the transfer portal to add to the Blazers’ intriguing roster.
49. PROVIDENCE -- The Friars lost leaders Al Durham and Nate Watson and 82% of their scoring from last season’s 27-6 team that won the Big East regular-season championship and reached the Sweet 16. Coach Ed Cooley restocked with transfers to surround senior point guard Jared Bynum.
50. ST. JOHN’S -- Junior point guard Posh Alexander is a first-team all-Big East performer, but the Red Storm need several newcomers to emerge, including DePaul transfer guard David Jones. Freshman guard A.J. Storr is coach Mike Anderson’s top recruit.