- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- You might say they put the band back together at UCLA, but, then, the band never really was together to begin with.
The NCAA on Friday reinstated freshman Shabazz Muhammad, and after months of wondering whether the No. 1 recruiting class in the country would ever play together, it finally will.
Muhammad will make his season debut Monday against Georgetown at the Legends Classic in New York. The highly coveted shooting guard out of Las Vegas, the top prize in this year's recruiting class, will join fellow freshmen Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker to complete the class that has been pegged as the impetus for UCLA's reascension into the national scene.
Muhammad is the key reason UCLA has been projected to return to prominence. He's an athletic, left-handed wing who can score from anywhere on the court and the type of clutch-time alpha dog who can carry a team through a tough stretch.
The consensus national high school player of the year last season and a projected lottery pick in the 2013 NBA draft should he leave school, Muhammad is the game-changing type of player who elevates the Bruins from very good to elite just in time for some of their most important games.
After opening with a few mid-major tuneups, the No. 13 Bruins have the Monday date with Georgetown in the semifinals of the Legends Classic. Win that, and they have a probable matchup against No. 1 Indiana.
UCLA also has games coming up against No. 25 San Diego State, No. 14 Missouri and Texas. These are the games that define RPI, and UCLA will need to win as many of them as possible to fetch a coveted high seeding for the NCAA tournament.
These are the kinds of early-season games that define a team for the rest of the season. Win them, and the nation views you as a top-tier team as your RPI rises. Lose them, and poll voters and tournament selection committee members don't give you the benefit of the doubt when poll votes matter and tournament selection takes place.
NCAA tournament sites this season include San Jose for the first two rounds, and Staples Center for the regional semifinals and finals, so a high seeding could mean UCLA wouldn't have to leave California until the Final Four.
Without Muhammad for those important games, UCLA runs the risk of playing as poorly as it did this week in an 80-79 overtime escape against UC Irvine. Such performances in a high-profile, nationally televised environment would send UCLA back to the ranks of irrelevancy. But Muhammad is the kind of player who won't let that happen.
He's a 20 points, seven rebounds a game player who can carry a team through tournaments such as this one, as well as the NCAA tournament later down the line. When he signed with UCLA, many projected the Bruins as a Final Four team this season.
That's not to say UCLA was going to be bad without Muhammad. The Bruins still had enough firepower to be a top-three Pac-12 team and sneak into the NCAA tournament. After the wake-up call against UC Irvine, UCLA really seemed to find itself Thursday night in a 100-70 victory over James Madison.
Adams, the least heralded of the four freshmen, has been the best player on the team and has become the first UCLA freshman to begin his career with three consecutive 20-plus-point games. Anderson has started all three games, and Parker has provided some good minutes off the bench.
But those games were against Indiana State, UC Irvine and James Madison. To compete at a high level against the nation's elite, you need a player such as Muhammad, and now UCLA has that.
It remains to be seen how he will fit in chemistry-wise and where his minutes will come from. Adams has benefitted from Muhammad's absence and is playing too well to lose minutes, so Ben Howland has some coaching to do.
Compounding matters is the fact that Muhammad hasn't been with the team much since his arrival on campus in July. He sprained his ankle during summer workouts and missed most of the additional practice time UCLA was allowed because of its three-game exhibition trip to China in August.
Then, because of the NCAA investigation, Muhammad stayed home during the China trip, so he didn't play with the team in those games. When official practice began this season, Muhammad almost immediately injured his shoulder and missed a couple of weeks.
He is healthy now and has been practicing for the past week, but he did not play in the first three games, so there will be some kinks to iron out.
But working out early-season chemistry issues is a far more appealing proposition for the Bruins than playing every game wondering whether they'd ever get the chance. That feeling of not knowing has hovered like a dark cloud over the Bruins every game they have played. The players and coaches have been uncomfortably avoiding Muhammad's absence for fear of making matters worse with the NCAA. (Anderson, Parker and Adams did wear "Free Shabazz" t-shirts underneath their sweats during warmups before the Irvine game, something Howland had been unaware of at the time and later said wouldn't happen again.)
Now that the feeling of not knowing is behind them, the Bruins can breathe a sigh of relief, and play a more relaxed and free brand of basketball. Now that they have no more off-court distractions, they can focus on getting better on the court.
And now that the band is finally together, the Bruins can finally find out what it sounds like.
2dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell