Midnight Madness is over, and with it went the smoke machines, dunk contests and laser shows that kick off the season. College basketball begins now, and while the excitement still remains it’s time to peel the hype back and see who the nation’s best truly are. That’s why Dime has you covered with individual previews of the nation’s top 15 teams and a few others just outside, all over the course of the next few weeks. Today, UCLA.
Last February, Sports Illustrated ran an exposÃ© on UCLA basketball, describing coach Ben Howland as having lost control of the program due to his personal eccentricities and inability to discipline problem players. There was nothing criminal, just seemingly a lot of dysfunction and enabling of star players that many coaches perpetuate. But Howland and the Bruins still came out looking shabby. The question hovered: Would this affect the big-time recruiting class he was attempting to build?
“The article does not matter to Lil’ Kyle, nor our family,” The father of top-five recruit Kyle Anderson told NBC Sports, offering a quick answer. “We support Coach Howland and the UCLA staff and Lil’ Kyle is still UCLA-bound in June.”
A few weeks later, top recruit Shabazz Muhammad elected to join Anderson in Westwood, helping to forge the No. 1 recruiting class in the country and spur potentially the fastest rebirth of a program ever. But the uncertainty returned when the eligibility of both top recruits was called into question.
It begins with Shabazz Muhammad. The No. 1 or 2 recruit in the country â€“ depending on your opinion of Nerlens Noel â€“ recently suffered a strained right shoulder in practice, an injury that won’t require surgery but will keep him out of action up to a month. Of course, even if he had been healthy, there’s no guarantee he’d have been able to play in those games anyway.
On the court, Muhammad is as sure a thing as there is. But questions have swirled off-court for some time, with the NCAA investigating him regarding his family’s connections to two financial advisers. One reportedly paid for two of his unofficial college visits to Duke and North Carolina, while the other helped fund his AAU team. Muhammad’s family has insisted everything is completely above ground, but he was forced to miss the team’s trip to China over the summer, and he hasn’t been cleared as of this writing to do anything other than practice. He almost certainly won’t be eligible for the start of the season, and with early-season games scheduled against Georgetown, San Diego State and Texas, his presence would be sorely missed.
Owner of the flashiest name in basketball, Shabazz’s game features plenty of meat and potatoes. A man among boys in high school â€“ and likely in college, as well â€“ Muhammad doesn’t coast on his immense talent, outworking everyone else with intensity and purpose. He’d be the perfect centerpiece to a Final Four team â€“ that is, if he’s not this year’s version of Enes Kanter.
Last January at the HoopHall Classic, Muhammad ran down a list of reasons he might pick certain schools: Kentucky’s style of play, Duke’s Hall of Fame coach, UNLV’s proximity to his Las Vegas home. When asked about UCLA, he simply said: “Who wouldn’t want to play with Kyle?”
Anderson’s Twitter namesake, Vinny Chase, is the protagonist from HBO’s Entourage, which is fitting in several ways. Anderson’s commitment to UCLA served
as the first domino, leading to Muhammad and Tony Parker following suit. And on a base level, like Chase, the New Jersey native headed from the East Coast to L.A. to hit it big.
Leading Bob Hurley‘s St. Anthony High to two consecutive undefeated seasons, the 6-foot-9 Anderson orchestrates the tempo of games from the high post with his ability to facilitate for others, a reason big-time players flock to him as a teammate. (His outstanding sense of humor is another reason.) Anderson describes himself as a point guard, but he’s more a uniquely talented point forward who got much physically stronger between his junior and senior seasons. Anderson, of course, had his own eligibility questions due to his father’s friendship with an agent. Unlike Muhammad, however, he was cleared by the NCAA of any wrongdoing before the season began last week. If his high-profile teammate is not, it might be time to find out if the leading man role he played at St. Anthony’s can translate to Division-I basketball.
It’s conditioning. Big man Joshua Smith has thus far been an enigma, in that he has the potential to be a major force and an NBA lottery pick, but has thus far been either unwilling or unable to get himself in the sort of shape that requires. Smith talked the talk, saying in July that he’d lost 15 pounds, but given that he played last season at 350 pounds (!), he has a ways to go, as even Howland has acknowledged.
“I didn’t have fun last year,” Smith said recently. “I remember more bad times than good. This year, my goal is to try to be on the court more.”
Parker, a four-star power forward from Georgia, had much fanfare surrounding his recruitment, aided by a televised announcement that rivaled LeBron James‘ Decision for ostentatiousness. His play in high school, however, demonstrated that work is needed on both his game and his physical shape. This isn’t to say he won’t have improved after a summer spent in the gym, but at last check, Parker was far from a finished product.
If Smith and Parker are physically equipped to take advantage of their talents, the UCLA frontcourt â€“ which also features UNC transfers Travis and David Wear â€“ can be as talented as any in the country. But the jury is most definitely still out.
UCLA has the recruiting class and prestige to be Kentucky West, and it’d be a fitting addition to the school’s extensive legacy if they can hang a banner in the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion. But there are just so many questions. Will the team’s two best players be eligible? Can UNC transfer Larry Drew II be known more for his ability to run the point than for his hip-hop stylings, if you will? Can Smith be closer to Shaquille than to Oliver Miller? Will Parker’s game justify his drawn-out recruitment and self-congratulatory announcement?
Howland survived his bad press last winter, but the heat will definitely be on if the Bruins miss the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years. If Muhammad is cleared to play, that won’t be a problem; The Final Four would be a reasonable goal. If he’s not, however? The Bruins will still probably be a tournament team, but without enormous upside, and will always leave us wondering what could have been.
“I was looking at (last season) like it was kind of a downfall for them,” Muhammad said recently. “We’re picking it up right now.”
Time will tell.
How good will UCLA be this season?
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