By R.L. Bynum
The ascension of the Carolina women’s basketball program to national prominence reached another level Tuesday when the Tar Heels made the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time in seven years.
The Tar Heels are No. 12 as one of five ranked ACC teams, the highest ranking for UNC since earning that same rank on Jan. 19, 2015, in a season that they advanced to the Sweet 16.
When Coach Courtney Banghart’s Tar Heels made their poll debut poll on Dec. 13 last season at No. 25, that was the program’s first ranking since it last made a preseason AP poll before the 2015–16 season at No. 22.
It’s the first time since that 2015–16 preseason poll came out that UNC’s men’s basketball, women’s basketball and football teams have been ranked at the same time. Like this season, the men were the preseason No. 1 team and the football team was coming off a win over Duke. That 66–31 home victory pushed Coach Larry Fedora’s No. 17 team to 8–1.
It’s UNC’s highest ranking in the preseason poll since also being voted No. 12 before the start of the 2013–14 season. The Tar Heels finished No. 12 but got as high as No. 6 on Jan. 27, 2014.
The only other schools currently ranked in all three sports are Tennessee, Texas, Oregon and Michigan. Carolina is the only ACC school and one of only nine in the country that has its men’s and women’s basketball teams ranked.
Carolina finished No. 17 in the final AP poll last season before losing in the Sweet 16 to South Carolina in the Gamecocks’ closest game on their way to winning the national championship.
The Gamecocks, who went wire-to-wire as the top-ranked team last season, are unanimous No. 1 in the preseason poll, followed by Stanford, Texas, Iowa and Tennessee. It’s the 20th consecutive poll in which South Carolina has been No. 1.
Other ACC teams in the poll are No. 7 Louisville, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 10 N.C. State and No. 13 Virginia Tech. That’s the highest rank for the Hokies since the final poll of the 1998–99 season.
The three top-10 teams and the five top-15 teams are more than any other conference.
Mitchell Northam of WUNC, the only North Carolina-based AP voter, has Carolina the highest rank of any voter at No. 7 and has Virginia Tech No. 6, Louisville No. 8, N.C. State No. 9, Notre Dame No. 10 and Miami No. 20. Kelly Gramlich of ACC Network, the first voter to rank UNC last season, has Louisville No. 5, Virginia Tech No. 9, UNC No. 10, Notre Dame No. 12, N.C. State No. 13 and Miami No. 25.
Northam and Gramlich are two of five voters who have UNC in the top 10.
Only two voters have UNC ranked lower than No. 16. Danny Davis of the Austin American-Statesman has the Tar Heels No. 17 and P.J. Brown of the Arizona Daily Star voted UNC No. 21. The Arizona Daily Star covers Arizona, whose season ended with a 63–45 loss to the Tar Heels but Brown didn’t cover that game. Brown has Arizona No. 12, but the Wildcats check in at No. 19.
UNC has eight games against ranked teams on its schedule (No. 11 Indiana, No. 25 Michigan, No. 13 Virginia Tech twice, No. 10 N.C. State twice, No. 7 Louisville and No. 9 Notre Dame) and could meet a ninth ranked team in No. 8 Iowa State for its second game at the Phil Knight Invitational.
The Tar Heels return four starters from last season’s 25–7 team, including junior guard Deja Kelly, who on Monday made the 20-player watchlist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the top point guard in women’s basketball. She averaged 16.5 points per game last season, making All-ACC first team and honorable mention All-American.
Other ACC players on the Lieberman list, which will be trimmed to 10 in mid-February, are Louisville’s Chrislyn Carr, Miami’s Haley Cavinder, Notre Dame’s Olivia Miles and Syracuse’s Dyaisha Fair.
Also back are three junior starters from last season: Alyssa Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Anya Poole. Fifth-year point guard Eva Hodgson, the first player off the bench last season, is also back.
The Tar Heels get three significant additions in redshirt freshman forward Teonni Key (who ESPN ranked No. 9 in the Class of 2021), freshman point guard Paulina Paris (ranked 27th in the Class of 2022) and, eventually, redshirt freshman Kayla McPherson (No. 17 in the Class of 2021).
Key and McPherson missed last season while rehabbing after surgery to repair torn right ACLs. While Key is expected to be ready for the season, McPherson will likely miss the entire non-conference schedule, which concludes at the end of December, with an unrelated injury.
The team held a scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Carmichael Arena, with attendance limited to season-ticket holders. Just as with the four-on-four scrimmage at Live Action with Carolina Basketball, Ustby, Key and Ariel Young did not participate.
A school spokesperson said that they were held out for precautionary reasons. The scrimmage Saturday was five-on-five and included the team’s male practice players.
The team will host a closed home scrimmage against No. 1 South Carolina on Saturday.
AP Top 25
|Rank||Team (2021–22 record)||Change from|
last 2021–22 poll
|1||South Carolina (29–2)||—||750 (30)|
|8||Iowa State (26–6)||+2||537|
|9||Notre Dame (22–8)||+12||513|
|10||N.C. State (29–3)||-7||457|
|12||North Carolina (23–6)||+5||401|
|13||Virginia Tech (23–9)||+3||365|
|14||Ohio State (23–6)||—||323|
|23||South Dakota State (29–9)||—||67|
Others receiving votes: Utah 35, UCLA 26, Villanova 25, Kansas 25, DePaul 19, Georgia 17, Belmont 14, Miami 11, South Dakota 9, Ole Miss 5, Kansas State 5, BYU 4, Gonzaga 3, Florida 3, Arkansas 3, South Florida 3, UCF 2, Duke 2, Alabama 2, Washington State 1. Point values in parentheses indicate the number of first-place votes.
|9||Wednesday||W, 91–59||Jackson State||Home||1–0|
|16||Wednesday||W, 93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|27||Sunday||W, 73–64||No. 17 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 18 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||Florida State||Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 4 |
|Blacksburg, Va.||9–4, 0–2 ACC|
|5||Thursday||L, 62–58||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||9–5, 0–3 ACC|
|8||Sunday||W, 60–50||No. 10 |
|12||Thursday||W, 70–59||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||11–5, |
|15||Sunday||W, 56–47||N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 13 Duke||Home||13–5, |
|22||Sunday||W, 70–57||Georgia Tech||Home||14–5, |
|26||Thursday||W, 72–57||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|29||Sunday||W, 69–58||Clemson||Clemson||16–5, |
|2||Thursday||W, 73–62||Virginia||Home||17–5, |
|5||Sunday||L, 62–55||Louisville||Louisville||17–6, |
|9||Thursday||L, 75–67||Syracuse||Syracuse||17–7, |
|12||Sunday||W, 73–55||Boston College||Home||18–7, |
|16||Thursday||L, 77–66, OT||N.C. State||Raleigh||18–8, |
|19||Sunday||W, 71–58||Wake Forest||Home||19–8, |
|23||Thursday||L, 61–59||No. 4 |
|26||Sunday||W, 45–41||No. 13 Duke||Durham||20–9, |
|3||Friday||L, 44–40||No. 13 Duke||Greensboro||21–10|
|18||Saturday||W, 61–59||St. John’s||Columbus, Ohio||22–10|
|20||Monday||L, 71–69||No. 12 Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||22–11|
Photo of Coach Courtney Banghart, Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams courtesy of the ACC