LAWRENCE, Kan. – There are more routes to the Final Four this season than simply Tobacco Road.
In fact, the path might go through the Sunflower State.
That's where you'll find No. 4 Kansas, seventh-ranked Wichita State and Kansas State, which returns three starters from an NCAA Tournament team a year ago. All three programs have big aspirations as they get their seasons under way with home games Friday night.
The Jayhawks face Tennessee State in its only real tune-up before facing No. 5 Kentucky in the Champions Classic – though they did have a high-level exhibition game against Missouri. The Shockers get Missouri-Kansas City and the Wildcats open their season with American.
"We have three returning starters, the most in the Big 12, and we have some transfers. We're still young," Wildcats forward Dean Wade said, "but I think we have some potential."
All of them do.
The Jayhawks return player of the year candidate Devonte Graham to captain arguably the nation's best backcourt. Long, sharp-shooting swingman Svi Mykhailiuk is also back, while former five-star recruit Malik Newman is eligible after a redshirt season following his transfer from Mississippi State.
They also return Udoka Azubuike, a mammoth 7-foot center, whose season-ending injury curtailed a freshman season that was big on promise. His loss before Big 12 play even began left a void in the middle of the paint, one that Oregon ultimately exploited in knocking Kansas out of the NCAA Tournament.
There are other returners, too. Lagerald Vick is coming off a breakout sixth-man season, and several role players are back on the bench. Throw in blue-chip prospect Billy Preston, who should form a potent one-two punch with Azubuike in the post, freshman guard Marcus Garrett and Sam Cunliffe — an Arizona State transfer who becomes eligible in December — and the Jayhawks are once again loaded.
Nevermind the fact that Bill Self is still patrolling the sidelines, aiming for his incredible 14th consecutive Big 12 championship, a third trip to the Final Four and a second national title.
"When I first got this job, I remember going and speaking around the state, and numerous fans would tell me, 'Hey, this is going to be our year. This is going to be our year,'" he said. "And I'm like, 'What about these last years? You had (Nick) Collison and (Kirk) Hinrich and now we're supposed to be better after going to back-to-back Final Fours?' That's why I made a joke about Kansas math."
Well, that math still applies. The Jayhawks believe they're a national championship contender even after losing national player of the year Frank Mason III and NBA lottery pick Josh Jackson.
"A lot of people expect this team to be really, really good, which we have a chance," Self said. "That's a lot to replace, but somehow people are so optimistic always that we should always be better."
The Shockers have every reason to think they'll be better.
After all, they return every starter from a team that went 31-5 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That includes NBA prospects Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie, both of whom are out for a month with foot injuries, and former Jayhawks sharp-shooter Conner Frankamp.
It's hardly a surprise that coach Gregg Marshall's team is expected to challenge Cincinnati for the American Athletic Conference title in its first season since leaving the Missouri Valley.
"There is a big target on our back," McDuffie said. "Everyone wants to beat us now. I wouldn't say it's a lot of pressure, but we are definitely the team that everyone wants to eat."
Then there's Kansas State, which lost swingman Wesley Iwundu but returns Wade, Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes, a trio of juniors who have started since they were freshmen. Add three transfers and a touted freshman class and the Wildcats believe they can improve on their 21-14 record from last season.
There's enough optimism that coach Bruce Weber got a contract extension this past offseason.
"This year's team is going to be competitive," Brown said. "We have a lot of flexible guys that can play multiple positions. We're going to be athletic, long, shoot the 3 at a higher efficiency and get to the basket. I feel that we are going to improve in every statistic."
If the Jayhawks, Shockers and Wildcats can all do that, it could make for an interesting season.
Perhaps an even more interesting March Madness.