Missouri hoping to handle expectations, distractions

Updated: October 30, 2003, 8:55 PM ET

DALLAS -- Missouri is hoping to handle great expectations better this time.

The Big 12 preseason favorite has four returning starters, but the Tigers have to overcome the distraction of an NCAA investigation related to the only starter not back.

Plus, Texas and Kansas still have plenty of talent and good players despite losing key pieces from teams that went to the NCAA Final Four last season.

"I wouldn't necessarily vote for us as much as I like my team," fifth-year Tigers coach Quin Snyder said Thursday. "We've got teams in this league that have won the league and been to the Final Four."

The Tigers have been to four straight NCAA tournaments for the first time in school history, and reached No. 2 in The Associated Press poll after winning their first nine games two seasons ago.

But they still haven't won a Big 12 regular season or tournament title. The only time they made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament under Snyder was to the round of eight in 2001-02.

"There were some questions about where we've been picked before," Snyder said. "We weren't ready then, and we'll see if we're there now."

Missouri heads into the season under the cloud of an NCAA investigation concerning former guard Ricky Clemons, the team's third-leading scorer last season who was released from the team during the summer.

Clemons pleaded guilty in April to two misdemeanors stemming from a January incident during which his ex-girlfriend said he choked her and refused to let her leave his apartment. The girlfriend later alleged that Clemons received improper academic help and may have received cash.

Snyder couldn't discuss specifics during the Big 12 media day, but said the team was cooperating fully with NCAA and school officials investigating the allegations.

With four senior starters returning, the Tigers say they haven't been distracted by the NCAA probe and aren't concerned about expectations.

"Anytime you talk about doing something, the second time is always a little easier," said guard Josh Kroenke. "A couple of years ago, when we got the higher rankings and slipped a little bit, we all learned from that."

Kansas has to replace Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, and new coach Bill Self -- even without having coached the two All-Big 12 players -- knows the rest of the players will have to step it up.

"The last couple of years, we had a really, really tight security blanket," said guard Keith Langford, who along with Aaron Miles and Jeff Graves are the returning starters.

"Roles will be different," Self said. "In the past, if Kansas didn't play well, it was more on Nick's and Kirk's shoulders. And now it's going to be on those guys' shoulders."

Self, who won at least 25 games and went to the NCAA tournament in each of his three seasons at Illinois, took over when Roy Williams left the Jayhawks for his alma mater, North Carolina. Self also coached at Tulsa.

League coaches picked the two-time defending champions third in their preseason poll. That's fine with the newcomer.

"If we finish third in the league, we've probably got a pretty good team," Self said. "I'd rather be picked first. I don't take it as a slap in the face, but rather as motivation."

The only starter missing from Texas' Final Four team is All-American guard T.J. Ford.

Still, the Longhorns' goal is getting back to the Final Four. Coach Rick Barnes said the work started right after the national semifinal loss to Syracuse, which then beat Kansas for the championship.

"When I walked into the locker room after that game, I knew we had something special," Barnes said. "The guys wanted more. They've gotten better and improved. I'm curious and excited to see how they respond."

The Longhorns still have two senior guards, Royal Ivey and Brandon Mouton. Ivey will take over at the point.

"This team is still going to be a team that tries to get in transition and get easy baskets just like if T.J. were here," Mouton said.

After three straight Big 12 tournament titles, Oklahoma must replace guards Hollis Price, Quannas White and Ebi Ere.

Seven of the Sooners' scholarship players are freshmen or sophomores, including forward Kevin Bookout, the league's top shooter last season and likely 5-foot-6 freshman point guard starter Drew Lavender. They get back senior guard Jason Detrick, who redshirted last season after being a key bench player on the 2002 Final Four team.

"Our youth is something that sticks out at me right now," said Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson.

Still, the Sooners were picked fourth in the preseason poll. They are followed by Oklahoma State, Colorado, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Iowa State, Nebraska and Baylor.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index