-- When the new Associated Press top 25 men's college basketball poll was released yesterday, North Carolina got some bad news: The Tar Heels are No. 12.

"We don't want to be ranked," North Carolina freshman forward Rashad McCants said after the Tar Heels won the Preseason NIT with a 74-57 victory over No. 17 Stanford on Friday. "We don't want to have expectations because once we have a bad game, everyone will say, 'I told you so.' "

Of course, high expectations go hand in hand with playing at North Carolina. At least, that was before the Tar Heels' 8-20 record last season, the worst in the program's 92 years. Including last season's preseason poll, North Carolina had been ranked by the Associated Press in 192 of the 200 polls since the start of the 1990-91 season, all but three of those times in the top 20.

Now, McCants and the rest of the nation's youngest team have the responsibility of returning North Carolina to the level it maintained for the better part of a half-century. A six-member freshman class -- which includes McDonald's all-Americans McCants, point guard Raymond Felton, and center Sean May -- as well as three sophomores who lived to tell about the worst freshman season ever in Chapel Hill, primarily comprise this team that has defeated its first five opponents, including then-No. 2 Kansas in the NIT semifinals.

"I've said the last three or four years, freshmen in college basketball are not like they used to be," Kansas Coach Roy Williams said. "They are more worldly, they are more traveled, they have done so many things, played on different things. It's not like 15, 20 years ago, freshmen came in and they were scared to death. It's not like even 10 years ago. They are very gifted."

They are also very raw. After defeating Stanford, the Tar Heels' players and coaches donned commemorative T-shirts and cut down the net from one of the baskets. Coach Matt Doherty justified it by saying: "Our guys are learning how to cut down nets. Hopefully, we'll get to do that a few times this year."

With so much responsibility in the hands of so many inexperienced players, however, skeptics think they will be able to prove McCants right this week when the Tar Heels visit No. 25 Illinois tonight and host No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday.

Or North Carolina could give two more examples of why its goals are not out of whack.

"My expectation for this group is just as high as it is for any other team," Felton said. "I think we can make a run for the NCAA championship. I think we can make a run at the ACC championship. People say we're cocky, but just because we're young doesn't mean we're cocky. We're not cocky. We're just confident."

North Carolina is leading the ACC's response to critics who say the conference is in for a down season. The league's nine teams have compiled a collective mark of 26-1, with the only defeat being Virginia's loss to No. 10 Indiana. The Big East is 38-12; the Big 12 is 34-11, the SEC is 31-12 and the Big Ten, which plays nine games this week against the ACC beginning tonight, is 24-13.

Besides those in uniform, the biggest change can been seen in Doherty, whom many thought was in over his head last season. After displaying a hopeless feeling on the bench then, he now rushes onto the court to greet players with encouragement as they walk bench-ward at the start of timeouts. His liveliness is palpable at practice, as well.

"He's energetic," sophomore guard Jackie Manuel said. "He's all smiles now. . . . Things like [jokes] we wouldn't do last year. Players might do it, but the coaches never would do it."

Doherty says he is "more settled" now. He left his job as a Kansas assistant in 1999, becoming Notre Dame's head coach for one season. He was named North Carolina's 17th head coach in July 2000.

Now in Doherty's third season, the program flaunts an identity that he has helped create. The freshmen and sophomores are all his recruits.

"We're his boys," said sophomore forward Jawad Williams, a relative veteran who says he has taken the freshmen under his wing and often calms them down when their gusto might get the better of them. "These are the guys he brought in. He recruits a certain type of player and we're all that type of player."

Some observers said that as last season wore on, the veteran players seemed to tune out Doherty and the program when the season became a lost cause. Doherty said the program had no remnants of last season when practice started.

"When we hit campus in July, it was kind of like a cleansing," Doherty said. "There was a new group in town. You could sense something was being lifted off the program."

Rashad McCants, right, and resurgent Tar Heels aren't No. 1 yet, but fellow freshman Raymond Felton says, "I think we can make a run for the NCCA championship."