By R.L. Bynum
It’s been 13 seasons since the combined anticipation of Carolina’s men’s and women’s basketball seasons has been this high, with both Final Four contenders.
The AP Top 25 poll before the 2009–10 season was the last preseason list that ranked both teams in the top 10. The last time both made a preseason AP Top 25 was with the women No. 13 and men No. 6 before the 2014–15 season.
If casual women’s basketball followers were ever going to increase their support to help fill Carmichael Arena, now would be the time.
Coach Courtney Banghart’s program is a budding national power. N.C. State fans have packed Reynolds Coliseum in recent seasons with the Wolfpack consistently a top-10 team. There’s no excuse for Tar Heels fans to not only equal State’s crowd totals but exceed them with a bigger seating capacity.
There is plenty for Carolina fans to be excited about for both programs.
Both lost to the national champions — Coach Hubert Davis’ first team to Kansas in the national final and Banghart’s third UNC team in the Sweet 16 to South Carolina. The Gamecocks, who beat UConn in the national final by 15, topped the Tar Heels by eight, the closest NCAA tournament game during their title run.
Both return four starters, and their combined rank in ESPN’s way-too-early preseason Top 25 that was updated this week is, by far, the highest in the country.
ESPN has the men No. 1 and the women No. 10 for a combined rank of 11, which easily tops the next-highest combined rank of 25 for Tennessee (No. 6 women, No. 19 men).
Only five other schools — none from the ACC — even made both rankings: Connecticut (No. 2 women, No. 24 men; a combined rank of 26), Indiana (women No. 11, men No. 15; 26), Baylor (women No. 20, men No. 9; 29), Creighton (women No. 25, men No. 5; 30) and Arizona (women and men each No. 17; 34).
The women’s team returns as much talent as the men’s team, but you haven’t heard as much about that since women’s players generally play four college seasons. They don’t have the lure of big professional basketball money that sometimes makes it surprising when men’s players return. With NIL money out there, though, men’s players are returning more often.
There was plenty of justified fanfare for the return of rising juniors RJ Davis and Caleb Love, rising senior Armando Bacot (last season’s leading scorer and rebounder) and fifth-year player Leaky Black. But the women’s team returning rising junior starters Deja Kelly (last season’s leading scorer), Alyssa Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Anya Poole, as well as graduate student Eva Hodgson (essentially a sixth starter last season) is just as significant.
The men’s team boasts a talented freshman class of Jalen Washington (No. 37 in his class, according to ESPN), Seth Trimble (No. 46), Tyler Nickel (No. 91) and Will Shaver (No. 142, according to 247Sports).
But the women’s team has three highly touted players who haven’t played their first college games and ESPN ranks each higher than every incoming freshman on the men’s team. Teonni Key (No. 9 nationally in her recruiting class, according to ESPN) and Kayla McPherson (No. 17) missed their entire freshmen seasons with torn right ACLs. UNC also welcomes freshman point guard Paulina Paris (No. 27 in the Class of 2022).
The men’s team has one scholarship spot and the women’s team has two for next season.
Carolina fans could very well be treated to the best stretch of combined success for the two programs since both were in the top 10 of the preseason AP Top 25 for four consecutive seasons from 2006–07 to 2009–10.
Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green led the men’s team in the first three of those seasons, including the 2008–09 NCAA title team, with Deon Thompson leading the way in the fourth season. Point guard Ivory Latta and Erlana Larkins were stars for the women’s team in 2006–07, and three-time All-ACC selection Cetera DeGraffenreid was a force on the other three teams. Italee Lucas and Jessica Breland were also key players during that stretch.
The first three of those seasons were fun for Tar Heels fans:
— Women: preseason AP No. 2, finished No. 2; 34–4, ACC Tournament champion; lost to Tennessee 56–50 in a national semifinal (after leading by 8 with 5½ minutes left)
— Men: preseason AP No. 2, finished No. 4; 31–7, tied for ACC regular-season title and won ACC Tournament; lost to Georgetown 96–84 in overtime in Elite Eight
— Women: preseason AP No. 8, finished No. 2; 33–3, ACC regular-season and tournament champion; lost to LSU 56–50 in Elite Eight
— Men: preseason AP No. 1, finished No. 1; 36–3, ACC regular-season and tournament champion; lost to Kansas 84–66 in a national semifinal
— Women: preseason AP No. 6, finished No. 11; 28–7; lost to Purdue 85–70 in the second round of NCAA tournament
— Men: preseason AP No. 1, finished No. 2; 34–4, ACC regular-season champion; beat Michigan State 89–72 for the NCAA title
— Women: preseason AP No. 5, finished unranked; 19–12, lost to Gonzaga 82–76 in first round of the NCAA tournament
— Men: preseason AP No. 6, finished unranked; 20–17, lost to Dayton 79–68 in NIT final
As that stretch of seasons shows, having a contender for a national title doesn’t mean it’s easy to win one.
Next season and beyond promise to be fun for Tar Heels fans, and it all starts when both teams show off their talents at the Smith Center at Late Night in October.
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications