October 20, 2009 11:14:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State men''s basketball coach Rick Stansbury likes his team better now than he did at this time last year.
With the return of five starters from a team that reached the NCAA tournament for the second season in a row, Stansbury is more comfortable this preseason.
"We know a whole lot more about our basketball team," Stansbury said. "There''s a lot of familiarity with them as far as strengths and weaknesses. We should be ahead of the game some this year."
The Bulldogs return starting guards Dee Bost, Barry Stewart, Ravern Johnson, and Phil Turner and center Jarvis Varnado.
Others took notice Monday, as a select panel of Southeastern Conference and national media members voted MSU to win the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
The Bulldogs received 22 votes to win the Western Division, and three votes to win the overall league title.
Upon learning of the preseason ranking, Stansbury said the only thing "that matters is where you finish" and that polls were something "for the fans to talk about."
His ultimate goal is to see MSU win championships, but he said it was "nice to be picked and recognized."
In addition to team rankings, Varnado, the two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, named to the All-SEC preseason first team.
"There are a lot of talented players in this league that deserve to be on the list," Varnado said. "These honors push you to live up to the expectations."
Varnado, who averaged 12.9 points per game last year, has 340 career blocked shots. He is 18 blocked shots shy of tying former LSU center Shaquille O''Neal''s SEC record of 412, and 141 away from tying the NCAA mark of 535 held by Louisiana-Monroe''s Wojciech Mydra.
Stansbury said Varnado and the rest of the Bulldogs make it easy for him to come to work every day.
"It''s easy to mold things and make changes when you''ve got good people," Stansbury said. "When you have good people, you have a good foundation to start doing and building whatever you want to do."
MSU started practice Friday. It will play its first exhibition game at 2 p.m. Oct. 31 against Oklahoma City. The regular season starts at 2 p.m. Nov. 13 against Rider.
Stansbury knows his team had some flaws last year and he will work to eliminate them.
"Hopefully, we can improve on things we didn''t do quite as well last year and continue to play to the strengths of our team," Stansbury said.