LAWRENCE — When the Kansas Jayhawks won the 1988 and 2008 national championships, they did not spend one week as the No. 1 team in the country in either of the major polls.
When KU began the year ranked No. 1 in 1996-97 and 2004-05, it ended those seasons with two of its most heartbreaking NCAA Tournament defeats — to Arizona in the Sweet 16 in '97 and Bucknell in the first round in '05.
On Thursday, after his team was picked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll by a wide margin, Kansas coach Bill Self can only hope that the 2009-10 Jayhawks create their own legacy by starting at the top and finishing there five months later.
"It should be our effort to try and play to that ranking each and every day we come out to practice," Self said.
So far, through nearly two weeks of practice, Self isn't convinced the Jayhawks are ready to do that.
"I think this team feels they can turn it on when they want to," Self said, "and that obviously is not the case, and that will be a tough lesson to learn if we don't pick it up from an intensity standpoint."
Of course, the beauty of being No. 1 is the built-in intensity that will be present every time KU takes the floor. The expectation that the Jayhawks should cut down the nets on Monday, April 5, 2010, is there — they received 27 of 31 first-place votes in the coaches' and 55 of 65 in the AP — and they will be forced to live with that starting now.
"Without any hesitation, I would say I like it," Self said. "I do think a target is good. It forces you to be more battle-tested. We're going to get everybody's best shot. In March, all it takes is one stubbed toe and you're done. Being forced to play under duress, I think, is really healthy for a ballclub when you have aspirations to play for the highest stakes."
The Jayhawks are not alone in carrying those kind of aspirations into this season. KU is followed in both polls by Michigan State, which beat the Jayhawks 67-62 in the Sweet 16 on its way to a national championship game loss to North Carolina. Big 12 rival Texas is ranked No. 3 in each poll.
Defending national champion North Carolina is ranked No. 4 in the coaches' poll and No. 6 in the AP. Kentucky, under first-year coach John Calipari, is No. 4 in the AP and No. 5 in the coaches'. Villanova, a Final Four participant last season, is No. 5 in the AP and No. 6 in the coaches'.
The Jayhawks received top billing because they return their top nine scorers and all five starters from a team that went 27-8 overall and 14-2 in the Big 12, winning the program's fifth straight league title. When point guard Sherron Collins and center Cole Aldrich chose to return to Kansas and top shooting guard recruit Xavier Henry committed to KU in April, the Jayhawks pretty much guaranteed themselves preseason No. 1 status.
Self entered the season with that title in 2004-05 during his second year in Lawrence, and that campaign didn't live up to expectations. He is already separating this year's team from that one.
"That was a tired team that fizzled late," Self said. "This team is more talented, deeper and probably has more margin for error than that team. But that team had some great leaders with Aaron (Miles), Wayne (Simien), Keith (Langford) and Michael (Lee) and I have yet to see that leadership except from Sherron and Cole. We have to have some young guys step up."