KANSAS CITY — Instead of shirking from the pressure-causing favorite's label draped around his team, Kansas State coach Frank Martin is wearing it proudly.
"It's flattering. I'm telling you, the biggest compliment you can be paid is when your peers, the people you compete against, respect what you do," Martin said Thursday at Big 12 media day.
The Wildcats return only two starters from last year's team that won a school-record 29 games and advanced to an NCAA regional final for the first time since 1988. But they include senior guard Jacob Pullen, the coaches' preseason pick for Big 12 player of the year. And also on hand are a number of experienced reserves who've seen plenty of action as Martin has taken the program from doormat to contender.
"You don't get picked preseason No. 1 by the coaches in this league because they like you," Martin said. "Or because you're a nice guy. No, sir. You get picked No. 1 in this league because the coaches respect your players and how they play the game."
It's obvious the fourth-year coach and his program have earned respect.
"What isn't there to like?" said Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon. "They've got great guard play, they've got unbelievable depth inside. And Frank's proven he can flat-out coach. I do think they're the preseason favorite. But that doesn't mean we can't win it, or Kansas can't win it, or Texas or Baylor. There are a lot of teams that can win the league this year."
The Jayhawks lost two NBA lottery picks as well as team leader Sherron Collins, but were picked second in the league they've won six seasons in a row.
The Jayhawks return the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, as well as guard Tyshawn Taylor and forward Mario Little, who redshirted last year. They also could add point guard Josh Selby, the overall No. 1 prospect as rated by Rivals.com.
Coach Bill Self said he's confident Selby will eventually be cleared by the NCAA, which is looking into his eligibility.
"I'm still confident that he'll be in uniform," Self said. "I hope that to be the case. He is a terrific talent and he wants to be in school and he is doing great in school."
Raising a few eyebrows was the news that Kansas has about 400-500 reserved season tickets atill available at Allen Fieldhouse, a college basketball shrine that has been sold out every game since 2001-02. A ticket scam that is still under federal investigation and a struggling economy have combined to hold down early sales.
Self is confident every one of the 16,300 seats in the tradition-rich, 55-year-old facility will be occupied.
The coaches picked Texas Tech seventh. And Pat Knight, 37-42 since moving up as an assistant and replacing his famous father as head coach, admits his job could be on the line.
The way he praises his team's potential, maybe it should be.
"It's going to be the best team I've had," Knight said. "I think it could be one of the better teams we've had in my 10 years there. Six seniors. I couldn't ask for a better situation as a coach."
Knight, who spent seven years as a assistant under his father, seems to relish the pressure.
"I know this being my third year, to me, it's a 'get an extension or get fired' year," he said. "We really have everything we need right now to be successful."
Two teams, Nebraska and Colorado, will be making their final trip around the Big 12 before heading out to the Pac-12 (Colorado) and Big Ten (Nebraska).
So what kind of reception is Nebraska coach Doc Sadler expecting when he last visits Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri — schools the Huskers have had an association with for around 100 years but rejected for a richer and, Nebraska says, more prestigeous league?
"Usually when a coach retires they give him nice gifts. So I would expect to get a nice gift everywhere we go," Sadler deadpanned. "If not, then maybe they're just going to give us a win."
Baylor will be good again, especially if star guard LaceDarius Dunn returns from a suspension tied to a domestic assault allegation. Texas, as usual, has re-armed with some outstanding newcomers. The Longhorns will be working with two freshmen — 6-3 point guard Cory Joseph and 6-8 power forward Tristan Thompson — who were ranked in the top 10 or higher by just about every recruiting service.
"You ask anyone in our program, coaches or players, and the first thing they will tell you is their work ethic," coach Rick Barnes said. "They're two guys who are in the gym first and they are the last to leave every day. They've done that since they walked on campus."
There are also two new coaches, Colorado's Tad Boyle and Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, whose Cyclones find themsleves at the bottom of the preseason predictions by the coaches.
"We're picked last by every coach in the conference, and we put that on the board," said Hoiberg, a native of Ames, Iowa, who starred for the Cyclones from 1991-95. "They're going to go out and play with a chip on their shoulder and try to prove some people wrong."
Barnes, the dean of Big 12 coaches, doesn't care who's expected to finish first, last or in the middle. He sees the league getting stronger and stronger, especially next year when the traditionally weak Colorado and Nebraska programs leave and the remaining 10 begin a round-robin schedule.
"Over the time I have been in the league now, this is my 13th year, I have watched this league grow," Barnes said. "I have watched programs grow. In my opinion, I think it will be the best basketball league in America."