The Tar Heels were a near unanimous top selection, earning 62 of a possible 65 first-place votes and a total of 1,620 points from a nationwide media panel. It's the eighth time North Carolina was awarded a No. 1 ranking to start the campaign since the AP began a preseason poll in 1961-62.
North Carolina was last the preseason top pick in 2008-09 and went on to capture the national championship.
Kentucky, Ohio State, defending national champion Connecticut and Syracuse complete the top five. Ohio State received one first-place vote, while UConn picked up two.
North Carolina was 29-8 last year and lost to Kentucky in the East Regional final of the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels return all five starters from last year's team, including forwards Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller.
Kentucky, which lost to Connecticut in the national semifinals last spring, has another top-ranked recruiting class for head coach John Calipari. Ohio State returns Jared Sullinger to a team that last year was a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost to Kentucky in regional semifinals. Connecticut will try to repeat without superstar Kemba Walker and Syracuse again has Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine leading the way after a surprising second-round NCAA loss to Marquette last spring.
Duke, Vanderbilt, Florida, Louisville and Pittsburgh round out the top 10.
The second 10 consists of Memphis, Baylor, Kansas, Xavier, Wisconsin, Arizona, UCLA, Michigan, Alabama and Texas A&M. Cincinnati, Marquette, Gonzaga, California and Missouri are the last five teams ranked.
Butler, which finished as the national runner-up for a second straight year last spring, picked up 25 points in the balloting. VCU, which went from the First Four to the Final Four in last year's NCAA Tournament, did not receive any votes.
The Big East had 11 NCAA Tournament bids last year and has the most teams in the preseason poll with six. The SEC and Big 12 each have four teams, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 both have three. The ACC has just North Carolina and Duke, although Florida State was nosed out by Missouri.