LOS ANGELES (AP) – Led by star recruits Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, No. 13 UCLA has the pieces in place for a revival. The Bruins return to a renovated Pauley Pavilion, and their heralded freshmen class, along with transfer Larry Drew II, is capable of propelling them back into title contention after last season’s tumult.
Muhammad is at once the most touted UCLA freshman since Kevin Love and the player whose status remains a burning question. The guard-forward from Las Vegas is the subject of an NCAA investigation involving alleged improper benefits he received in his recruitment from boosters of his AAU program and the alleged improper acceptance of airline flights for some of his recruiting visits. He chose UCLA over Kentucky and Duke.
“Haha hopefully I’m next so we can get this season going !!!!” Muhammad tweeted in response to Wednesday’s news that fellow UCLA freshman Anderson had been cleared to play this season by the NCAA.
Anderson was being investigated for alleged recruiting violations, but athletic director Dan Guerrero said the NCAA found no evidence to substantiate such claims.
Muhammad had been practicing with the Bruins until hurting his right shoulder last week. His availability for their season opener on Nov. 9 against Indiana State is unknown.
“I’m very optimistic about Shabazz,” coach Ben Howland said Thursday at Pac-12 media day in San Francisco. “I can’t tell you how long or when, I don’t know that. But again, these are great kids and I’m very confident that things are going to work out and very optimistic.”
Landing one of the nation’s top recruiting classes was crucial for Howland, who enters his 10th season in Westwood with three straight Final Four appearances four years ago a distant memory. Last season ended with a 19-14 record and no postseason bid for the second time in three years.
Along the way, he kicked Reeves Nelson off the team for bad behavior and a Sports Illustrated story that suggested the program had spun out of control under Howland forced UCLA officials to do major damage control while speculation raged about Howland’s future with the program.
But months later, Howland has rebounded with five stellar freshmen on a roster that already boasts talent and experience.
“The chemistry on this team is as good as I can remember,” he said.
Besides Muhammad and Anderson, the other newcomers expected to make early contributions are Tony Parker and Jordan Adams.
“We all came from winning programs, so we’re just trying to carry that tradition on,” Muhammad said. “We’re going to really work hard.”
Drew is eligible this season after transferring from North Carolina, where he was part of the 2009 national title team but grew unhappy there.
“I wasn’t the same player I was upon entering the program,” he said. “I’m back home and I’m at one of the best programs in the country. I’m very amped. Been waiting for this day for a long time.”
If Muhammad is ready, the Bruins figure to start him, Anderson, Drew, Travis Wear and Josh Smith in Howland’s new up-tempo offense. Yes, the coach whose career was built on emphasizing defense plans to get UCLA running and dunking again.
“We’re trying to play faster, push the ball and take advantage of the fact we have depth and speed,” Howland said, noting twins Travis and David Wear run well for their 6-foot-10 size.
But Smith said Howland hasn’t loosened up on defense.
“To win all our games we’re going to have to play defense,” he said. “We have a lot of talent this year, but if we can’t play defense it’s going to be a long year.”
Smith will try yet again to live up to the expectations he set for himself as a freshman. Back then, he averaged 10.9 points and nearly 22 minutes while putting up a double-figure effort against Florida in the NCAA tournament. But as a sophomore last year, he returned heavier than the season before and frequently fouled out of games while his minutes dropped to 17.2 per game.
“I didn’t have fun last year,” he said. “I remember more bad times than good. This year my goal is to try and be on the court more.”
UCLA returns to Pauley Pavilion after a $132 million, 18-month renovation that forced the Bruins to split last season between the aging Los Angeles Sports Arena and Honda Center in Anaheim. The makeover includes boosting capacity to 13,800, along with new seating, scoreboards, lighting and expanded concessions and restrooms.