DESTIN, Fla. - SEC men's basketball is having a better off-season than post-season.
Only three teams qualified for the NCAA tournament, and none made it past the second round. Based on the last two months, the next season looks considerably more promising.
And that's not just because Kentucky hired John Calipari, who quickly assembled the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. The returnees are as significant as the recruits.
Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado, the nation's leading shot blocker, has decided to return for his senior season. So have Kentucky All-SEC power forward Patrick Patterson; Arkansas' Michael Washington, the SEC's leading rebounder; and Ole Miss point guard Terrico White, who was outstanding as a freshman.
Their return should have a huge impact on the league, which should be much improved in 2009-10. It could be even better if a handful of other players follow the examples of Varnado, Patterson, Washington and White.
So far, only Florida guard Nick Calathes has opted to go pro early. College players have until June 15 to make that decision.
Tennessee star Tyler Smith and Kentucky sharpshooter Jodie Meeks are mulling over early starts to a pro career. So are point guard Devan Downey and forward Dominique Archie of South Carolina.
"I think the league is coming back," UT coach Bruce Pearl said at the SEC spring meetings. "I think everybody will bring the majority of their starters back.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings agrees.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you had six or more (SEC) teams (make the NCAA tournament next season)," Stallings said.
"Patterson coming back means Kentucky will be better. A.J. Ogilvy coming back will make us better."
The Commodores will return their other four starters in addition to Ogilvy, who led the team in scoring and rebounding.
Arkansas and Mississippi State also will return all of their starters, as will UT and Kentucky if Smith and Meeks decide to come back.
Ole Miss and Alabama will have plenty of experience as well.
New Alabama coach Anthony Grant will return four starters from a team that finished strong in 2008-09. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy will return three starters, plus two former starters - Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice - who were injured last season.
Kennedy said there won't be a problem getting both White and Warren, also a point guard, into the lineup next season.
"Terrico can play any one of three positions," Kennedy said. "He's a guy with a huge upside."
With the return of Varnado, Mississippi State has a huge upside as well.
Not only do the Bulldogs return all of their starters, they have signed one of the nation's top post players, Renardo Sidney, a Mississippi native who played high school basketball in Los Angeles.
Both UCLA and Southern California withdrew scholarship offers to Sidney, and there are questions about his amateur status.
But if he's eligible, this should be coach Rick Stansbury's most talented team.
"Having the most talent doesn't mean you will have the best team," he cautions.
Nonetheless, he has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his next team after winning the conference tournament in March. He's also optimistic about the conference.
"This has been one of the best leagues in the country," Stansbury said. "For whatever reason, some national media changed their perception of the league (this past season)."
Stansbury said the national perception might have been affected by traditional power Kentucky and recent two-time national champion Florida having off years.
"We need those programs to be good," he said.
There's little doubt Kentucky will be good next season. And so should the entire conference.
"Absolutely," said South Carolina coach Darrin Horn. "Last season was just a perfect storm in the wrong direction."