Muhammad news taints Pauley opening

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
12:42
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- Lights, cameras, action and a hint of disappointment dotted the scene for the grand reopening of Pauley Pavilion on Friday, when the UCLA Bruins opened the season with an 86-59 victory over the Indiana State Sycamores.

It was a star-studded, hoopla-filled celebration tainted by the news that star freshman Shabazz Muhammad had been declared ineligible by the NCAA hours before he was supposed to lead the Bruins into a new era of basketball.

[+] EnlargeFlea
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesFlea's shirt said it all.
UCLA brought out past legends, including Lucius Allen, Marques Johnson, Rod Foster, Reggie Miller, Don MacLean and Ed O'Bannon, for a glitzy pregame ceremony, and Flea, the bassist from Los Angeles band the Red Hot Chili Peppers, delivered an electric bass solo rendition of the national anthem.

But the words on Flea's T-shirt served as a dampening reminder of what was on everyone's mind: "Free Shabazz Muhammad."

"I think it’s extremely frustrating for Shabazz for him not to be able to get out there, especially on a great night like this when we’re opening up a new building," said freshman guard Kyle Anderson, himself recently cleared after a separate NCAA investigation. "But we’re just being patient and waiting for him to come back and join us."

Just when that will be is anybody's guess.

Muhammad was found to have accepted travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to two NCAA-member schools, according to the NCAA's statement Friday.

UCLA must either appeal the NCAA ruling or apply for Muhammad to be reinstated. If he is reinstated, the NCAA would determine how many games he has to sit out in punishment for breaking NCAA amateurism rules. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said he would do whatever it takes to get the situation resolved as quickly as possible, but, because there is no clear timetable, the Bruins remain in limbo as far as Muhammad's availability for this season.

"We know it’s an ongoing investigation, and we don’t have that much other info," Bruins forward Travis Wear said. "We’ll see what happens. We’d like to have him out there, and we hope the NCAA clears him as soon as possible."

The school found out about Muhammad's situation at about 5 p.m. Friday, some three hours before tipoff. Muhammad has been dealing with a strained shoulder, but coach Ben Howland said he would have been available to play against Indiana State after getting cleared by the medical staff Thursday. Muhammad practiced full speed with the team, Howland said.

But Muhammad sat on the bench during warm-ups, cheering his team but wearing a sullen look at times.

"We were very optimistic that he was going to be cleared today, so we are very disappointed for him," Howland said. "We’re very hopeful this whole thing will be resolved in the not-too-distant future."

In the meantime, the Bruins will have to forge on without Muhammad. It won't be easy. He was the consensus high school player of the year last season, an All-American who is projected as a lottery pick in the NBA draft should he come out of school after this season. He was projected as a starter for UCLA, and many expected him to be the Bruins' leading scorer.

"When he is able to play, he’s going to add a big boost for us," Howland said. "He’s a guy who can really score, really shoot and he’s a great rebounder."

Muhammad is the top player in a freshman recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the nation that is supposed to vault UCLA back into the national elite. For now, the Bruins will just remain in Muhammad limbo, as they have since Muhammad arrived on campus this summer … although they really don't know what they will be like with him in the lineup.

Muhammad suffered a severely sprained ankle early in the summer and missed much of the practice time leading up to UCLA's three-game exhibition trip to China. Then, in a precautionary move, UCLA kept Muhammad home while the Bruins traveled on that trip. When official practice began for this season, Muhammad almost immediately injured his shoulder and hadn't practiced much with the team until the past few days.

Howland said that Muhammad would continue to practice the same way he has when healthy and that they would wait patiently while the process continues to unfold.

"We’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing when he’s healthy," Howland said.

In the meantime, the show goes on. UCLA faces UC Irvine on Tuesday and James Madison on Thursday. The next week brings a trip to New York for the first big test of the season, against Georgetown. A date with preseason No. 1 Indiana could be waiting after Georgetown.

The Bruins certainly hope the NCAA will have paid heed to Flea's T-shirt by then.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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