Jan. 8, 2007
North Carolina is No. 1 in The Associated Press' college basketball poll for the first time in almost six years. The wait has been quite a bit longer for Washington State, which is ranked for the first time in almost 24 years.
The Tar Heels (14-1) moved into the top spot Monday after three weeks at No. 2 following UCLA's loss at Oregon last weekend.
It is North Carolina's first time at No. 1 since a two-week run in February 2001, and it's the first time the Tar Heels are there in the three-plus seasons, including the 2005 national championship, under coach Roy Williams.
"I feel good where we are, but it's so, so early," Williams said Monday. "We have 15 more battles to go in the conference, so we'll see what happens."
Williams is no stranger to having a top-ranked team. In seven of 15 seasons at Kansas, the Jayhawks reached No. 1, including a 15-week stretch in 1996-97.
"I've been No. 1 before, and if you don't finish that way at the end of the year, it means you had a good little stretch," he said.
Washington State (14-2) is having an unexpected stretch, and the quick start has the Cougars tied for 22nd in the poll, their first ranking since a one-week stint in February 1983.
Picked last in the Pac-10's preseason media poll, the Cougars have gotten off to an impressive start under first-year coach Tony Bennett, including wins over Gonzaga and last weekend's 77-73 overtime win against Arizona.
"We've had different guys step up at different times," Bennett said Monday. "We have mostly sophomores and juniors, and they're kids who have taken their lumps and have some legitimate game experience with some heartbreaking losses and some bad losses. It's a start, and that's all it is. We're in the No. 1-ranked conference in the country, and we have 14 games to go, so we have to keep that same fighting mentality."
North Carolina received 64 first-place votes and 1,788 points from the 72-member national media panel to easily outdistance No. 2 Florida (14-2), which had three No. 1 votes and 1,682 points in moving up one spot from last week. The Gators were No. 1 in the preseason poll and for the first two weeks of the regular season.
Wisconsin (15-1) received one first-place vote and moved from fourth to third, the highest ranking in school history, while UCLA dropped from first to fourth.
The Bruins (14-1), who received four first-place votes, held the No. 1 spot for six weeks until the 68-66 loss at Oregon on Saturday.
This is North Carolina's 82nd poll with a No. 1 ranking, fourth on the all-time list behind UCLA (134), Duke (110) and Kentucky (98).
The Tar Heels' lone loss was to Gonzaga in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. They have won 11 straight since, including the 84-58 victory over Florida State in their Atlantic Coast Conference opener Sunday.
"Defensively we are getting better the last four, five games and I appreciate their attitude, but we have so far to go," Williams said. "We also have to work on our freelance offense. When we don't have a set play called we can do such a better job with spacing and getting on the backboard. We have stood around instead of getting everyone involved."
The last time Washington State was ranked George Raveling was the coach and Craig Ehlo and Guy Williams were the stars of a team that finished 23-7 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. Since then, Washington State has made one NCAA appearance in 1994.
"I'm sure the kids will enjoy this, but what I'm concerned with as a coach is where we're ranked at the end of the year," Bennett said. "This indicates we have some quality wins that people recognized."
Texas (11-3) was the other poll newcomer this week, coming in off a 102-78 victory over Colorado in its Big 12 Conference opener.
The Longhorns were 21st in the preseason poll and moved to No. 19 in the first regular-season voting before falling out after losses to Michigan State and Gonzaga. Their other loss was 111-105 at Tennessee in overtime, while their most impressive win was also in overtime, 76-75 over LSU.
Marquette (13-4) fell out from 15th following losses to Providence and Syracuse last week. The Golden Eagles were 16th in the preseason poll and reached as high as No. 8 before home losses to North Dakota State and Wisconsin,
Washington (11-4) dropped out from 24th after splitting home games last week with Arizona and Arizona State. The 96-87 loss to the Wildcats was the Huskies' third straight as they opened Pac-10 play with losses at UCLA and Southern California. Washington, which also lost to Gonzaga, was 17th in the preseason poll and reached as high as No. 13.
There are five games between ranked teams this week, and three are on Tuesday: Ohio State at Wisconsin; LSU at Alabama; and West Virginia at Notre Dame. Oklahoma State is at Kansas on Wednesday, and Oregon is at Arizona on Sunday.