Quentin Thomas tried not to think about where North Carolina would be ranked coming off an NCAA championship and the remarkable postseason exodus that followed.

"I didn't know where we'd be," the sophomore point guard said, "but I knew we wouldn't be that high."

In fact, his team wasn't ranked at all.

For the first time in 17 years, a defending national champion is starting its season unranked. But ask around the Smith Center and you won't find anyone all that upset or surprised -- between cutting down the nets in St. Louis and starting this season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels lost their top seven scorers, with four underclassmen leaving for the NBA.

And while those remaining say the rankings don't matter much, they mention the snub as motivation for a youth-laden team aiming to prove voters wrong.

"We already knew that they were going to kind of be writing us off," junior Reyshawn Terry said. "I definitely feel like we're going to shock a whole lot of teams."

The voters who refused to give North Carolina even a courtesy No. 25 ranking apparently were unimpressed by a team that will rely heavily on a talented freshman class and role players who filled in the gaps between last year's stars -- including Sean May and Raymond Felton, who are starting professional careers down the road in Charlotte for the NBA's Bobcats.

The Tar Heels are instead listed among "others receiving votes," along with Bucknell, Harvard and even Charlotte, an Atlantic 10 team that placed just ahead of North Carolina among the also-rans.

The Tar Heels are the first defending national champion to start the next season unranked since Kansas in 1988-89. During that span, the defending champion was ranked No. 1 seven times, with Maryland's No. 12 ranking in 2002-03 marking the only time the champ was outside the top 10.

And North Carolina's previous title teams didn't just enter the next season with a ranking, but with acclaim from voters that they remained one of the best teams in the country. The Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 in the preseason following their 1957 and 1993 titles, and No. 3 following the '82 championship.

Not that coach Roy Williams -- the assistant from North Carolina who took over at Kansas following the Jayhawks' 1988 title -- cares about any of that.

"My team is so young that when you say something about rank, they think you're talking about a smell," Williams said.

Within days of their 75-70 title win over Illinois, the Tar Heels lost juniors Felton, May -- the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four -- and Rashad McCants, along with freshman Marvin Williams to the NBA draft. They also lost seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott.

What's left is a new championship banner hanging in the Smith Center rafters, and lots of question marks.

Senior David Noel is the leading returning scorer at 3.9 points per game, and both he and Terry will have to improve their scoring while Thomas and Wes Miller play significant minutes.

They're joined by a freshman class featuring Tyler Hansbrough -- the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year -- and fellow McDonald's All-Americans Bobby Frasor and Danny Green. That group ranked among the nation's best recruiting hauls, but will have to grow up fast while playing for a team that has little depth.

Fans had yet to hear from Hansbrough, who scored 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting against Fayetteville State in North Carolina's first exhibition game, and the rest of the team's freshmen, thanks to a long-standing rule dating to the Dean Smith era that keeps them off limits to reporters until after their first regular-season game.

Hansbrough followed up his strong preseason debut with 16 points against Division II Catawba, the Tar Heels' final exhibition before opening the season Saturday against Gardner-Webb.

Noel, who scored 14 against Fayetteville State and 18 against Catawba, figures starting the season unranked doesn't mean the Tar Heels have to end up where they started.

"I was shocked at first, but then I realized we had lost seven people, so I could kind of understand," Noel said. "Rankings really don't mean too much, but at the same time, we have to work hard in order for us to gain our respect back and become one of the Top 25 teams."

After winning the NCAA championship last year, the Tar Heels have lost their top seven scorers, with four underclassmen leaving for the NBA.North Carolina's Danny Green (14), center, high-fives David Noel (34), as Quentin Thomas looks on. The team will rely heavily on freshmen this year.