Tar Heels close-to-unanimous No. 1

Updated: October 20, 2011, 1:43 PM ET
ESPN.com

North Carolina was one first-place vote away from being a unanimous preseason No. 1 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.

The Tar Heels, the heavy favorite to win the 2012 national championship, received 30 of the coaches' 31 first-place votes and outranked No. 2 Kentucky by 53 points (774 to 721) in the poll, which was released Thursday.

North Carolina returns a core of top players, including sophomore forward Harrison Barnes. He and three of his teammates -- John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller -- are among the 50 players to appear on the Wooden Award's preseason list.

UNC won the ACC regular-season title last season before losing in the NCAA tournament in the East Regional final, finishing 29-8.

Ohio State, defending champion Connecticut and Syracuse fill out the ESPN/USA Today poll's first five. The Buckeyes have excellent talent returning in Wooden preseason candidates Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and Aaron Craft.

Rounding out the coaches' top 10: Duke, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Memphis and Florida.

Pittsburgh comes next in the poll, as coaches put four Big East teams in the top 11. The Panthers are followed by Baylor, Kansas, Wisconsin, Xavier, Arizona, Alabama, Michigan, Texas A&M and UCLA.

Marquette, Cincinnati, Gonzaga, California and Missouri complete the Top 25. Butler, which lost to UConn in the NCAA final and finished second to the Huskies in the final poll of last season, is not among the preseason Top 25.

North Carolina will meet unranked Michigan State in one of the most anticipated early-season matchups -- in terms of geography, at least. The teams will meet in the Carrier Classic on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson on Veterans Day in San Diego, and President Barack Obama is expected to attend.

On Nov. 15, Kentucky meets No. 13 Kansas and No. 6 Duke plays Michigan State in the Champions Classic at New York's Madison Square Garden. The event will rotate to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and United Center in Chicago in the following years.