No conference has gone from NCAA tournament euphoria to agony quite like the American.
UConn won a national title in the American's first season, and the powers that be at the league office could be forgiven for thinking this whole college basketball thing was a piece of cake. Yet since the Huskies cut down the nets in April of 2014, the conference has posted a 3-8 record in the tournament.
That tournament winning percentage is likely to improve for the American come March. The league now boasts 12 members, thanks to the addition of Wichita State in the offseason. Feel free to term this one-team expansion a coup, for the deep and battle-tested Shockers stand a fair chance of contending for a national championship in 2018.
Even so, head coach Gregg Marshall's men will have to work hard for any in-conference superlatives. An outright league title? Cincinnati will get two shots at Wichita State during the regular season. American player of the year? Houston and redshirt senior Rob Gray may have something to say about that. The American is stronger with the Shockers, but Marshall may have already pointed out to his players that the young conference still hasn't seen a team win the league two years in a row.
Number of teams that should make the NCAA tournament
Two. Wichita State and Cincinnati aren't locks, (this is the preseason), but they are something on the order of locks to be locks. Past the Shockers and the Bearcats, however, the American's either blessed or cursed with several teams likely to create bubble suspense. Throw a stick at SMU, Connecticut, Houston, UCF and Temple and you'll hit at least a few fan bases poised to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Freshman you will want to tune in to see every time he plays
Alterique Gilbert, UConn. Ranked No. 30 in the ESPN 100 a year ago, Gilbert logged just 87 minutes before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in November. Now a redshirt freshman, the 6-foot combo guard will team with Jalen Adams to form the potent backcourt that Kevin Ollie has been waiting to put on the floor. Gilbert's reputation will likely rise or fall along with his scoring, but don't overlook any help he provides on D. Last season the Huskies forced turnovers at the lowest rate of any defense in American play.
Coach with the toughest job
Brian Gregory, South Florida. Gregory was hired last March to overhaul a program that had just turned in a 7-23 season. Now the former Georgia Tech coach is facing his first season in Tampa with just two returnees from last season's eight-player rotation: Tulio Da Silva and Troy Holston.
The team that will surprise you
Cincinnati. Everyone will be paying attention to and talking about the new kid on the block in Wichita. Meanwhile, the Bearcats bring back three starters in Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington and Gary Clark. Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome is now eligible and ready to take over as UC's point guard, and sophomore Jarron Cumberland is in line to make the jump to the starting lineup. Mick Cronin has everything he needs for an eighth consecutive NCAA bid, and, possibly, an American title.
The team that will disappoint you
Memphis. In the space of three years under former coach Josh Pastner, Memphis signed eight top-100 recruits: Austin Nichols, Kuran Iverson, Nick King, Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell, Dominic Magee, Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson. Not one has been drafted (so far), yet those players combined to record just one junior season (Crawford) and zero senior years in a Tiger uniform. Depending on one's point of view, Tubby Smith is either living in or extending that aftermath.
The league title will come down to
Wichita State and Cincinnati. A more accurate seed for Wichita State last March could well have sent the Shockers to the Sweet 16 and beyond instead of to a second-round game against Kentucky. Now Marshall has, in effect, everyone back from that team, up to and including Landry Shamet, Shaquille Morris, Conner Frankamp and Markis McDuffie. To say a group like that will be pushed by Cincinnati is high praise indeed for the Bearcats.