Shabazz Muhammad Puts UCLA Back On The Map

Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. What do these guys have in common? Besides sharing the spotlight for hoops royalty in the basketball city that is Los Angeles, Black Mamba and CP3 possess the same unrelenting will to be the best at the expense of anyone in order to project the ultimate trait every team needs to succeed: an assassin.

When most East Coast cats think of L.A., they recognize this city from afar as one place: killa Cali. This nickname draws references to the inner-city culture depicted from the iconic litany of gangsta rappers like N.W.A., 2Pac and Snoop Dogg, as well as the timelessly classic movies Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. The explicit message was that West Coast cats ain’t nobody to f@#$ with. Their mindset had zero regard for authority. It’s why Kobe’s and CP’s assassin-like approach on the basketball court is revered amidst the overall fabric of the city and its hoops scene. Yet, it is this very same murderer characteristic that has been sorely missing within the UCLA basketball program for some time now.

Thirty Pac-10 conference titles, 17 Final Fours, and 11 NCAA titles. That’s been the standard of excellence established at UCLA since the days of John Wooden. Those glory days now feel like a figment of one’s imagination. Hell, the three consecutive Final Four runs from 2006 to 2008 feel like a distant memory. The past few seasons ended in large disappointments and failures to meet their lofty expectations. UCLA fell off the college basketball landscape quicker than the New Boyz‘s jerkin’ movement. And there’s one primary reason why the program has been in disarray recently.

When college hoops schools reach the basketball mountain top — Sweet 16 success or better — and continue to achieve this level of success repeatedly, some programs lose sight of the type of players that got them there to begin with. This happens to nearly every school, regardless of how they’re recognized — be it a high-major, mid-major, or low-major.

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For instance, Gonzaga was a mid-major team during the late ’90s. As a Cinderella, they busted plenty of brackets come March Madness. The combination of winning and exposure paved the way for interest from kids that previously wouldn’t consider going there. Now, they’ve built a viable program, elevating their status to a high-major. Gonzaga is now producing pros. Adam Morrison — can’t believe I just typed that name — Austin Daye and Jeremy Pargo are a few that have made it. However, they haven’t reached the Sweet 16 in four years. This development is quite comparable to what UCLA has faced in recent seasons.

The last time UCLA played like an original member of the bluebloods was in 2008. They went to the Final Four and couldn’t get past Derrick Rose‘s Memphis Tigers. That UCLA squad was stacked. Four of them were drafted thereafter. Two NBA superstars were produced from that group: Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute were prototypical Ben Howland guys. The toughness, attitude and work ethic these Bruins brought hasn’t been seen since. Because of the high-profile winning wave they were on, UCLA was a prime school for many five-star recruits, and yet, these same blue chippers were at the root of their lack of sustained success.

The following season, Howland hauled in the no. 1 recruiting class in the country, which featured two McDonald’s All-Americans in Malcolm Lee and Jrue Holiday. This group never lived up to the hype, though. As highly-touted as these guys were out of high school, Howland was blinded by their talent and didn’t properly gauge the real attributes that have made his program successful. Two of these five recruits ended up transferring. Drew Gordon went to New Mexico because of apparent “conduct detrimental to the team,” while J’mison Morgan dipped back home to Baylor for undisclosed reasons. Jerime Anderson was a complete bust. And Lee and Holiday went pro after their junior and freshmen seasons, respectively. Nothing good came from these cats, especially since they didn’t collectively possess the will, intensity and discipline to excel under Howland’s system as a unit.

In the one-and-done era of college basketball, one bad recruiting class can hold a program back for years. That’s what happened at UCLA. Conversely, one great class can change the fortunes of a team’s season, if not alter the entire national balance of power. After yesterday’s seminal announcement on ESPNU, it’s one single player that’ll propel the Bruins out of the basement and into everyone’s living room for must-see TV this fall: Shabazz Muhammad.

Despite landing Kyle Anderson (the No. 5 recruit) and Jordan Adams (No. 41), Howland desperately needed to nab Shabazz to cool steam off his hot seat. The recent SI story that detailed cats using drugs and fights amongst teammates placed a larger grey cloud over the program. Still, these allegations didn’t dissuade Shabazz. In fact, the circumstances only enhanced the appeal for him to become a Bruin.

“I would love to take on that challenge knowing they had a really down year this year and just knowing how much responsibility I would have to take to help get more wins for the team and try to win a national championship,” Shabazz told The Los Angeles Times‘ Ben Bolch. “It’s no pressure at all.”

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Meanwhile, his father, Ron Holmes, also understood the present realities.

“There were some issues there, but there are a lot of issues in a lot of programs,” he said to The Los Angeles Times. “I mean, I played college basketball so I know about those types of things. This whole culture now is just, to me, brutal. You’ve got everybody tatted up, marijuana is the order of the day, so you have to understand and deal with it.”

That said, UCLA is getting the most dynamic offensive player in his class. Shabazz has the laundry list of traits from past Bruin greats: The passion of Jordan Farmar, the defensive prowess of Arron Afflalo, the versatility of Mbah a Moute, the confidence of Love, the explosiveness of Westbrook, and the leadership of Collison makes him the complete package as a hooper. Howland won’t have to concern himself with Shabazz buying in to his program. He’s exactly the kind of player UCLA basketball has been dying for. And he couldn’t have signed at a more opportune time, with the debut of the $136-million renovated Pauley Pavilion on the horizon.

“What separates Shabazz Muhammad from nearly every other player in this class and so many great players before him is his desire and drive to be the best,” says Scout.com‘s Brian Snow. “It is easy to strive to be good, it is a little harder to be great, but is exponentially more difficult to be the best and strive to be the best and to work to be the best on a daily basis.”

Likewise, Shabazz definitely made the best choice for his future. The cliché thing to do was to follow the past footsteps of elite players and enter Kentucky’s revolving door. Unlike Nerlens Noel, who decided he wanted to be the next Anthony Davis, Shabazz decided to be the first and only Shabazz Muhammad. Kobe didn’t attend Duke in his day because he was his own man, not the next reincarnation of Grant Hill. O.J. Mayo went to L.A. for many of the same reasons. Shabazz chose to cement his legacy and revitalize a basketball powerhouse.

What’s the point of going to Kentucky as a member of a no. 1 recruiting class if everything would be easy? How much of an indelible mark could he have made there if only to be seen as just another top John Calipari recruit like Derrick Rose and John Wall? Yea, Calipari has a strong track record of helping guys transition into the league, but so does Howland. Outside of Rose, who played at Memphis and not Kentucky, the rest of his prospects have yet to truly arrive in the NBA the way that Love and Westbrook have. The competition in the SEC next year will be nonexistent; it’s not SEC football comp. Meanwhile, Arizona landed the second-best recruiting class to complement their impressive returning Wildcats and should reignite their lost rivalry with UCLA next season.

“These kids are looking at UCLA as a great opportunity to come and help us rise right back to the top where we expect to be,” Howland told ESPN.com.

Shabazz has already set his eyes high, too: “Hopefully we can sell out Pauley Pavilion,” he was quoted on ESPN.com.

For Shabazz to be bold enough to select UCLA while attempting to steal the limelight from Kob’ and the Lakers and CP3 and Lob City this fall, it speaks volumes to the killer inside of him. With Anderson, Jordan, Larry Drew III, and potentially Tony Parker (the no. 26 recruit), the boyz from the ‘hood are back. And Shabazz is the menace to society leading the Bruin pack.

How good will UCLA be next year?

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