June 13, 2024

Bill Self likes to remind his team that the faces might change at Kansas but the expectations within his program never do.

Expectations outside the program? Turns out they are as high as possible this year.

The Jayhawks were the clear No. 1 pick in the AP Top 25 preseason men’s basketball poll released Monday, earning 46 of 63 first-place votes to easily outdistance No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Purdue. It’s the third time since Self’s arrival in Lawrence in 2003 that his team will start the season on top but the first time since the 2018-19 season.

“You know you’ll have a target on your back playing at Kansas,” said Kevin McCullar Jr., who decided to return for a second season with the Jayhawks and fifth in college hoops. “We’ll have that chip on our shoulder, you know, prove everybody wrong, and state why you should be the No. 1 team in the nation. You go out there and use that. You use that as fuel every day.”

The Jayhawks had a disappointing follow-up to their 2022 national title last season, losing to Texas in the Big 12 championship and falling to Arkansas in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. Self, 60, missed both of those events after having a valve in his heart replaced, but the coach is back on the sideline and chasing a third national title in the 75th anniversary season of the AP poll.

He has three returning starters in McCullar, Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams, along with top-50 recruit Elmarko Jackson and Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, perhaps the biggest prize of this past summer’s portal moves.

“I think that this summer certainly put us probably ahead since we have so many new faces, even though our core’s still the same … ,” said Self, whose team played during a preseason tour of the Caribbean. “The chemistry is certainly one that, I don’t know that we’re ahead of schedule, but they certainly seem to like to play off each other.”

Duke picked up 11 first-place votes to land at No. 2 in Jon Scheyer’s second season, and Purdue got three first-place nods as it tries to avenge a stunning end to last season. AP player of the year Zach Edey and the Boilermakers became the second men’s No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament when they lost to Fairleigh Dickinson.

Edey’s deadline-day decision to return to the Boilermakers, rather than turn pro, kept them a national title contender.

“We had a tough finish to the season losing in the first round. Hopefully that sits with us as a coaching staff and really as a program to make us better, so we can have more success in March,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “But as you guys all know, it doesn’t start there. The process starts all over, and you can’t miss any steps.”

Michigan State was fourth with one first-place vote, its highest ranking since December 2020, and Marquette rounded out the top five with AP Coach of the Year Shaka Smart returning a loaded squad led by third-team All-American Tyler Kolek.

That’s the highest ranking for the Golden Eagles since they were No. 3 in March 1978, when they were known as the Warriors.

Defending national champion UConn was sixth with two first-place votes after losing standouts Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins. The Huskies were followed by Big 12 newcomer Houston, Creighton, Tennessee and Florida Atlantic, which returns just about everyone from the team that went 35-4 and made a surprising Final Four run last season.

“We have some guys that are ready to play, have been ready to play but under circumstances have had to take a back seat,” said Owls coach Dusty May, whose team has jumped from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference.

“We’ll be a little different,” May said, “but we’ll still be versatile, and we’ll play a lot of guys.”

Gonzaga was No. 11, followed by Arizona, Miami (Florida), Arkansas and Texas A&M. Kentucky came in at No. 16, with national runner-up San Diego State next, and Texas, North Carolina and Baylor rounded out the top 20.

The final five were Southern California, Villanova, Saint Mary’s, Alabama and Illinois.

Conference watch

The SEC led the way with five teams in the preseason poll, with Tennessee in the top 10. The Big 12 and Big East had four apiece, with the latter landing three among the top eight in Marquette, UConn and Creighton. The ACC and Big Ten had three apiece.

Outside looking in

Wisconsin, Colorado and UCLA are the first three outside the Top 25; the Bruins were No. 7 in the final poll last season. Also on the outside were Xavier and Kansas State, both of whom were in the top 15 entering last year’s NCAA tournament.

Mark your calendar

The season begins for most teams Nov. 6, with some big-time matchups in the first couple of weeks. That includes the annual Champions Classic doubleheader, this time in Chicago, where No. 2 Duke will play fourth-ranked Michigan State and top-ranked Kansas will face No. 16 Kentucky.

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