North Carolina surprised just about everyone last year when a talented team led by first-year coach Hubert Davis parlayed a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament into a run to the national title game.
The Tar Heels won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year.
With four starters back from the team that lost to Kansas in New Orleans, the Tar Heels are the runaway pick as the preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25. They earned 47 of 62 first-place votes from a national media panel to easily outdistance Gonzaga, the top preseason team the past two years.
“As they opened up their lockers for the first practice of last year, there was a picture of the New Orleans Superdome in there. I wanted them to see where we were headed in April,” Davis recalled last week. “The hard work and preparation, the practice that had to be put into place to put ourselves in position to do that. t’s the same approach this year compared to last year. The only difference this year is the outside noise.
“Last year,” Davis said, “the outside noise didn’t think we had a chance. The outside noise this year thinks we do.”
Gonzaga received 12 first-place votes while No. 3 Houston had one and fourth-ranked Kentucky the other two. Houston has its highest preseason ranking since 1983, when the third of the Cougars’ Phi Slama Jama teams reached its second consecutive title game. Kentucky has its best preseason rank since 2019, when the season ended amid the pandemic.
There was a tie at No. 5 between the Jayhawks, who raised their latest national title banner inside Allen Fieldhouse earlier this month, and Big 12 rival Baylor, which raised its own championship banner the previous season.
It is the 10th time that North Carolina has been preseason No. 1, breaking a tie with Duke for the most in the history of the AP poll. Of those 10, two Tar Heels teams have gone on to win the NCAA title: the 1981-82 team coached by Dean Smith and featuring James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan, and the 2008-09 team coached by Roy Williams and featuring Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson.
A third team, Williams’ 2015-16 squad, lost the final to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“It’s an honor to be recognized for our team’s potential,” Davis said of securing the top spot in the poll, “but the only way for us to reach any of our dreams and goals will be to improve each and every day by our commitment to preparing, practicing and playing to the best of our ability.”
Caleb Love, one of the four returning starters for North Carolina along with R.J. Davis, Leaky Black and Armando Bacot, said the focus will be on getting better daily ahead of the ACC grind.
Duke, where Jon Scheyer replaced Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, was ranked seventh and UCLA eighth. Creighton has its best preseason ranking at No. 9, followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, TCU and Auburn.
“You don’t pay a lot attention to it when you’re picked ninth,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said of their preseason ranking in the Big East last season. “You go to work every day and try to get better every day. It’s important we approach it the same this year.”
The No. 13 Hoosiers have their first ranking since January 2019 and highest in the preseason since 2016.
Villanova, where Kyle Neptune is taking over for Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright, is No. 16, the lowest preseason ranking for the Wildcats since 2008. They were followed by Arizona, Virginia, San Diego State and Alabama.
The final five are Oregon, Michigan, Illinois, Dayton and Texas Tech.
“When I was in school as a player, I never bought into the rankings, what the media would say about our ball club. You still got to go out and play the game,” Hoosiers coach Mike Woodson said. “Hell, my senior year we were ranked No. 1 and we didn’t get it done. So at the end of the day I guess it’s kind of nice for our players who haven’t experienced that. Again, you got to go out and play. I mean, you got to prove it on the basketball floor. That’s when it counts.”
The Big 12 and SEC lead the way with five ranked teams. The Big Ten, Pac 12 and ACC have three apiece and the Big East has two. The West Coast, Atlantic 10, Mountain West and American Athletic conferences each have one team in the poll.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Texas A&M was the first team outside the poll, followed by UConn, which appeared on 24 of 62 ballots. Miami, Purdue and Saint Louis were also eyeing a spot in the Top 25 when the first regular-season poll is released Nov. 14.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
The season begins for most teams Nov. 7, but as usual, the first meeting of heavyweights will be the Champions Classic on Nov. 15 in Indianapolis: No. 4 Kentucky plays Michigan State, unranked in the preseason poll for the second year in a row, before No. 5 Kansas plays No. 7 Duke in the nightcap.
The daughters of former NBA All-Star Jayson Williams have denounced St. John’s University for its decision to induct their father into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame because of accusations of neglect in their lives following his role in the 2002 fatal shooting of a limousine driver.
Tryumph and Whizdom Williams both wrote open letters they sent Friday to The Associated Press, and also planned to send to St. John’s, that said the school should be ashamed for his induction into the class during Saturday’s homecoming weekend.
The 54-year-old Williams served more than a year in prison for the accidental shotgun death in his New Jersey mansion of chauffeur Costas Christofi.
Whizdom J Williams, an 18-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, accused her father of being an alcoholic and “a deadbeat father who lacks any sense of remorse.”
The sisters each accused Williams of neglect, emotional and verbal abuse and that the power forward who once signed a six-year, $86-million deal with the New Jersey Nets failed to provide adequate financial support. Tryumph Jaye Williams, a 19-year-old studying theater at DePaul University, detailed accusations that her sister was locked in a trash chute by Williams. Tryumph also lashed out at St. John’s as “possibly, fools, misusing money to honor Jayson Williams.”
“Why are you being honored and inducted into the hall of fame when I’ve always had to earn my survival, let alone my success, in spite of you? St. John’s University – you should be ashamed of yourself,” she wrote.
Williams killed Christofi with a 12-gauge shotgun while showing it to friends, having failed to check the weapon’s safety mechanism before snapping the gun closed. Williams then wiped down the weapon and placed it in the chauffeur’s hands, stripped off his own clothes, handed them to a friend and jumped into his pool, according to testimony. Williams’ lawyers maintained that the shooting was an accident and that his actions were driven by panic.
Williams made a tearful apology to the victim’s family when he was sentenced for the shooting in 2010.
But his daughters wrote that Williams never made amends with them.
“I knew that I couldn’t change who my father was or the way he viewed and treated me,” Whizdom wrote. “I knew that the contrition and apologies were never coming.”
She also wrote a poem about her father and dedicated it: “To the weakest man I know, Jayson.”
St. John’s and Williams did not immediately return requests for comment.
Williams averaged 8.1 points and 12.1 rebounds over nine seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. The 6-foot-10 Williams was among the NBA’s best rebounders when leg injuries led to his retirement from the Nets in 2000.
Williams is scheduled to join a seven-person class at St. John’s induction ceremony that also includes 2016 Olympic high jumper Priscilla Frederick and 2016 Olympic fencing silver medalist Daryl Homer. Williams played three seasons at St. John’s under Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca. A co-captain in 1989-90, Williams was part of a St. John’s team that won 24 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He was the 21st overall pick in the 1990 draft and finished with 3,472 points, 3,584 rebounds and 301 blocks during his pro career.
Williams, divorced from his daughters’ mother, Tanya, paid Christofi’s family more than $2 million in 2003 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
He has since founded the addiction rehabilitation program the Rebound Institute in Florida, that has been promoted by St. John’s as a success story.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — With two consecutive Elite Eight appearances in tow, Arkansas’ hopes for the Final Four aren’t just a pipe dream.
Coach Eric Musselman, heading into his fourth season in charge of the Razorbacks, has two returning players from last year’s rotation, only one of which is a starter in guard Devo Davis.
But he pulled in the No. 2 class in the nation, headlined by projected lottery pick and first-team preseason All-SEC guard Nick Smith Jr. He also picked up five players via the transfer portal to complete the reload.
Expectations aren’t just high locally, either. Arkansas was tabbed No. 10 in the AP Top 25. Musselman knew he would have to have that conversation with his team about being the hunted.
“We already have a target on our back,” he said. “I would love to say that whatever the polls say, making two Elite Eights back to back, that’s something we haven’t talked to our team much about, but it’s something we will start to.”
Musselman’s biggest project, at least early, is determining how best to distribute minutes among a roster filled with talented youngsters and experienced veterans. He had to do something similar last year, too, as Arkansas dropped five of six games at one point from mid-December to early January before the team won 14 of its next 15 and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
HITTING THE LOTTERY
Arkansas isn’t short on next-level talent. Smith is a projected top-10 pick in nearly every 2023 NBA Draft board. Freshman guard Anthony Black is predicted to be a first-rounder. And swingman Jordan Walsh is currently listed as a borderline first-round choice next spring.
The Arkansas strength during the preseason was at guard and wing as the frontcourt remained a work in progress.
Forward Jalen Graham transferred from Arizona State where he was an All-Pac-12 selection. He’s joined by former Missouri forward Trevon Brazile, twin centers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell from Rhode Island and reigning American Athletic Conference Sixth Man of the Year Ricky Council IV from Wichita State on the wing.
An NCAA Tournament appearance in 2022-23 would be the third in four years for Musselman. The Razorbacks were on the bubble in the 2019-20 season, Musselman’s first year at the helm, before the postseason was canceled because of COVID-19. Arkansas hasn’t made three straight NCAA tournaments since 2005-08.
Davis and forward Kamani Johnson are the only two regulars returning for Arkansas. Davis, a junior, has spent much of his career as the team’s starting point guard. He averaged 8.3 points and was second on the team with 104 assists last year, starting about half the team’s games.
Johnson is in his second year with the Razorbacks after transferring from Little Rock two seasons ago. He averaged just eight minutes ago in 26 games, but Musselman is expecting Johnson’s aggression to carry over in likely more minutes.
“His offensive rebound rate is incredible,” Musselman said. “His free throws attempted per touch and offensive rebounding rate are at a really, really high level.”
Arkansas opens the regular season Nov. 7 at home against North Dakota State while nonconference foes include Oklahoma, Baylor, Louisville and either Texas Tech or Creighton. SEC play begins Dec. 28 at LSU.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Kentucky is the favorite to win its 50th Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
The Wildcats, who open the season ranked fourth, were followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama in voting by a panel of SEC and national media members. The results, without vote totals, were released Wedesday at the league’s media day.
Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, was picked to win the honor again. The other first-team picks were Arkansas freshman Nick Smith Jr., Florida’s Colin Castleton, Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler and Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi.
“We have more veterans than I’ve had in a long time, and those veterans are speeding up practice,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “Like, we’re doing more than we normally would do in the first couple weeks because we’ve been there, plus the Bahamas, that trip (over the summer) helped us.”
The Wildcats’ last regular-season title came in 2020, when the postseason wasn’t held because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
LSU and Tennessee are tied for a distant second-place with 11 SEC regular-season championships.
Six SEC programs turned to new coaches during the offseason, most of them arriving with terrific track records at lower levels. The exception: Mike White went from Florida to Georgia.
The Gators replaced him with 37-year-old Todd Golden, fresh from leading San Francisco to its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. LSU hired Matt McMahon from Murray State, Missouri turned to Dennis Gates (Cleveland State), Mississippi State hired Chris Jans from New Mexico State and South Carolina brought in Lamont Paris from Chattanooga.
“I think you see the rise of the SEC as a basketball league,” McMahon said. “Obviously, for me that was very appealing. As a competitor, you want the opportunity to go and compete against the best every night, and you’re certainly going to get that opportunity here in the SEC.”
Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams called Gates “an absolute star.”
“I think he’ll do great at Missouri,” Williams said. “I think he’s an absolute star, always have.”
Paris has a head start with the program’s highest-rated recruit. GG Jackson, a former North Carolina commitment, was the No. 6-rated prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings.
“Well, it doesn’t hurt the rebuild process,” Paris said. “I can say that with 100% certainty.”
Jackson had high praise for his coach, too. “He’s the smoothest, cleanest and good-smelling coach that I know so far. He’s always going to have on some good type of fragrance. He’s the perfect balance between a hard-headed coach and also a compassionate coach that can talk to you on all different type of levels.”
Jackson has played with or against some of the other top freshmen entering the league. But he’s already had one intense run-in with one of Kentucky’s five-star recruits, Chris Livingston.
Apparently, Livingston’s coach had said that Jackson had been trash-talking him.
“Coach (Steve) Smith at Oak Hill told him before the game that I was talking trash, which I wasn’t,” the South Carolina freshman said. “He came out before tip-off. He said something to me and I was like, `What?’ From that point on, we were just going back and forth.”
He said Livingston’s teammate and current Duke freshman Christian Reeves later informed Jackson: “Coach told him that you said some nasty things about him.”
SEC teams landed eight of the top 20 prospects in the country, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Headlining that group were: Smith (No. 3), Kentucky’s Cason Wallace (8), Livingston (12), Tennessee’s Julian Phillips (13) and Alabama’s Brandon Miller (15).
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Smith, a projected NBA draft lottery pick, has an “incredible bright future.”
“I think he’s used to playing with expectations,” Musselman said. “Throughout his high school career he’s had high expectations. He’s a player that kind of moves on the floor effortless, almost like he’s on skates.”
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Leonard Hamilton has always tried to build and win with veteran teams. This season the Florida State coach will win with a new type of veteran.
“We’re fortunate now that every one of our returning veterans, our two-year veterans, they have improved with hard work over the summer,” Hamilton said. “And to my pleasure, the incoming players that we have are farther along than I thought they would be at this stage.”
Hamilton and the Seminoles have built rosters through the years that lean on length, athleticism and depth. They have also featured a blend of seniors as well as transfers and some one-and-done stars. But the Seminoles haven’t had a situation like this, where they return just five players and all of them are beginning only their second season in Tallahassee.
Florida State’s returning five are a good foundation – productive players who are evolving into leaders. They will be complemented by a few transfers and freshmen who could help the program get back to the NCAA Tournament after falling short at 17-14 during an injury-depleted 2021-22 season.
The Seminoles return their top two scorers in guards Caleb Mills (12.7 points) and Matthew Cleveland (11.5 points). Also back is forward Cam’Ron Fletcher, who averaged 6.8 points off the bench last season, as well as center Naheem McLeod and guard Jalen Warley.
FSU also welcomes junior guard Darin Green Jr., a UCF transfer who led the team in scoring (13.3 points) and 3-pointers (87) last season. Forward Baba Miller, a 6-foot-11 forward who played for Spain’s under-18 national team over the summer, leads a freshman class that also includes center Cameron Corhen, forward De’Ante Green and guard Chandler Jackson.
Hamilton thinks his unranked team will make an impression quickly.
“When you look back even at the times we’ve won the ACC, ranked in the top 10 at the end of the season, those years we’ve never been preseason in the Top 25,” Hamilton said. “I’m expecting to have a really good year. Hopefully we’ll be a surprise team in the country.”
Florida State lost 54 games to injury in 2021-22, with five of the Seminoles’ top nine scorers forced to watch for large chunks of the ACC schedule. One early question is Jaylen Gainey, a 6-foot-10 transfer from Brown who was the Ivy League’s defensive player of the year in 2020 and ’22. Gainey suffered a preseason injury and could be out an extensive part of the season.
NO EARLY RETIREMENT
Hamilton was hired at Florida State in 2002 and turned 74 in August. At a time where some of the biggest names in college basketball have opted to retire, notably Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (now 75) and UNC’s Roy Williams (now 72), Hamilton embraces his role as a mentor and coach.
“I’m happy where I am, my family is happy and we’re expecting bigger and better things,” said Hamilton, whose teams are 78-42 since the start of the 2016-17 season. “Don’t ask me when I’m retiring. As long as I can come out of the locker room and not accidentally go sit on the other coach’s bench because I don’t know where I’m at, I’m going to hang in there.”
Green Jr. shot 6 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc in UCF’s win over Florida State on Dec. 19, 2020. The 6-foot-5 guard made 208 3-pointers in three seasons at UCF, making 38.8 shots from long range. The early impressions of Green Jr. at Florida State have been impressive: He shot 13 of 30 from 3-point range during a three-game exhibition tour in Canada this summer.
Florida State has won the last four ACC Sixth Man of the Year awards: Mfiondu Kabengele, Patrick Williams, Scottie Barnes and Cleveland. The 6-foot-7 Cleveland has tried to make newcomers feel more comfortable during preseason practices.
“Just making sure that everyone, the transfers and the incoming guys, that they have the information that they need to play within the system and to be comfortable,” Cleveland said.
Florida State will host preseason No. 1 North Carolina on Feb. 27 and No. 18 Virginia on Jan. 14. The Seminoles will travel to play at Duke on Dec. 31. They will also face five schools that received votes in the presason AP Top 25: Florida, Miami, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Purdue.
STORRS, Conn. — Injured UConn star Paige Bueckers, in one of her recent Instagram stories, walks into a team photo shoot carrying a whistle and a clipboard and calling herself “Coach P,” much to the amusement of her teammates.
For the former national player of the year who will miss the 2022-23 season with a torn ACL in her left knee, the idea of becoming a student-coach for the year is only half tongue-in-cheek.
“I’m head coach,” Bueckers told reporters recently. “Coach let me take his spot. No, I’m just kidding. But I’m the players’ coach, I’m going to be the one they can talk to, the one that’s going to push them, also the one they can rely on when they need support. I’m definitely taking that job as a coach but I’m not sure which job I’m taking.”
The good news for UConn fans is that Bueckers also vowed to return to college next year, rather than declaring, as she could, for the WNBA draft. The junior turns 21 and will be 22 during 2023, making her eligible.
“I’m not leaving, that is not any question,” Bueckers said. “I’m not thinking too far ahead, but I will be playing college basketball again.”
In the meantime, coach Geno Auriemma is relatively happy that Bueckers plans to stay very engaged with the sixth-ranked Huskies.
“I’m anxious to have her learn more about the game by doing those things, by sitting in practice and watching from a coach’s eyes instead of a player’s eyes,” Auriemma said. “And she’ll be the same Paige she’s always been, though, and she’ll get carried away and she’ll want to do this and she’ll want to do that, and she’ll want to have input in this.”
Bueckers missed 19 games last season after suffering a left knee tibia plateau fracture and torn meniscus in early December. She returned to lead the Huskies to the Final Four, where the Huskies lost to South Carolina in the championship game in Minneapolis, 10 miles from her Minnesota hometown.
She finished the season averaging 14.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, showing how much she means to the team in a 27-point effort against North Carolina State that sent the Huskies to their 14th straight Final Four.
Auriemma has said that to make it 15 in a row and compete for a national title, he will need sophomore Azzi Fudd, a former national high school player of the year, to step into a starring role. He is also expecting big things from junior Nika Muhl, who will take the point guard duties and 6-foot-5 graduate student Dorka Juhasz, who missed the Final Four last year with a broken wrist.
Junior forward Aubrey Griffin is also coming back from a back injury that kept her sidelined all of last year. The Huskies have another top recruiting class coming in, led by 6-3 forward Ice Brady.
Auriemma understands that nobody outside the program is feeling sorry that the Huskies will be without Bueckers this season. Unlike last year, the Huskies have had the offseason to figure out who will be responsible for making up the lost points, assists and rebounds.
“It’s good for the players because they have to look around the room and say, OK, our goals can’t change, our expectations can’t change, but maybe the way we go about it has to change,” Auriemma said
And while they are certain to miss their best player in Bueckers, her teammates said they also look forward to having “Coach P” on the bench.
“It’s different hearing things from coaches and hearing things from one of the players, so I think that will definitely be a big help,” Fudd said.