Late last spring, as Kansas coach Bill Self finished up his 10th season at Kansas, he lost all five starters off a team that finished 31-6 and advanced to the Sweet 16. It was the first time, in all his years at KU, that he lost the five leading scorers off one team.
On Thursday, the USA Today preseason coaches’ poll deemed just five teams better than the remade and youth-laded Jayhawks. Kansas appeared at No. 6 in the preseason poll, sliding in behind a top five that included another young team (Kentucky) at No. 1 and Big Ten favorite Michigan State at No. 2.
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Defending national champion Louisville was ranked No. 3, while Duke, the Jayhawks’ opponent in the Champions Classic on Nov. 12 in Chicago, was slotted in at No. 4. Pac-12 favorite Arizona rounded out the top five.
Self has spent most of the last few weeks trying to tamp down the swelling expectations around a crop of talented freshman, including No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins and McDonald’s All-American guard Wayne Selden.
When more than 20,000 fans lined up outside Allen Fieldhouse for Late Night in the Phog on Oct. 4, Self asked for patience, telling fans that it might take time for a team with six freshman to find itself.
Of course, he also said that the expectations remained the same: the 2014 Final Four in Dallas will be the ultimate goal. And the Jayhawks also return sophomore power forward Perry Ellis and junior point guard Naadir Tharpe. Still, KU doesn’t return as much firepower as some of the team’s ahead of them in the poll, specifically Michigan State and Louisville.
“The last seven years, I think our teams have averaged 33 wins a year,” Self said earlier this year.
“If this team got to 33 wins, it would be an unbelievable year considering how difficult the schedule is.”
That schedule includes four other teams in the preseason top 25. After playing Duke in the Champions Classic, the Jayhawks will also have a nonconference road showdown with No. 8 Florida. Oklahoma State, the co-favorite in the Big 12, according to the league’s coaches, is ranked No. 12 in the preseason poll. KU will also face No. 20 New Mexico in a home game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
Oklahoma State was the only other Big 12 team in the coaches’ top 25, but Baylor (102 points, last team out), Kansas State (3) and Iowa State (2) also received votes, as did Georgetown, which will travel to Allen Fieldhouse this season.
Wichita State, coming off a Final Four appearance, was 16th.
Kentucky and Florida were the only Southeastern Conference teams ranked, though Tennessee (73), Missouri (4) and LSU (2) also received votes.