- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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UCLA's maligned basketball program is back in the national spotlight, but this time it's a good thing.
Coach Ben Howland, his reputation soiled after his program received national exposure for all the wrong reasons, made a startling comeback just a month after his future at UCLA had been called into question.
With one short, declarative sentence, Las Vegas high school senior Shabazz Muhammad changed the fortunes for UCLA basketball and Howland. Muhammad, the No. 2-ranked recruit in the nation, made UCLA relevant once again when he appeared on ESPNU Wednesday and said "I chose to be a Bruin."
And with that, the Bruins, who did not even make the NCAA tournament -- nor the NIT for that matter -- last season, are suddenly a sleeper pick for a national championship run next season. UCLA, its proud basketball tradition waning after missing the NCAAs twice in the past three seasons, once again has something to brag about.
And after a couple of seasons of contemplating how far the mighty had fallen, those around UCLA are now wondering if the bandwagon has any seats left on it.
"I think he’s going to have a tremendous impact," Howland said of how much of a difference-maker Muhammad could be. "He’s a special, special talent and has so many attributes that will help our team."
Muhammad, a 6-foot-6 small forward, is explosive, athletic and can score from anywhere, including beyond the three-point line. He was named the 2012 Naismith Boy’s High School Player of the Year and selected by the McDonald’s All-American committee as the 2012 Morgan Wootten Player of the Year. He also was named the MVP of the 2012 McDonald’s All-American game on March 28 and won the Powerade Jam Fest dunk contest.
But his scoring ability and talent are only half the story of what he brings to UCLA. His character off the court is equal to his ability on it and that is exactly what UCLA needs after Sports Illustrated reported dysfunction in the UCLA program caused mostly by the unscrupulous acts of entitled recruits.
The signing of Muhammad, along with Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, puts a new face on the way UCLA does things.
"The thing that’s great about Shabazz is he’s a great kid," Howland said. "They have a great family. He’s really, really the total package. An outstanding student athlete. This is a whole new era. What we’ve really try to institute now is a whole new level of accountability for our current team."
Howland said that the returning players have already bought in and have rededicated themselves to every part of being a successful student athlete. Form schoolwork to diet to weight training and gym work, the Bruins are sporting a renewed sense of determination.
"I couldn’t be happier about where we are directing ourselves right now," Howland said.
Directing the program up is imperative. A month ago, Howland's future at UCLA was uncertain after the Bruins failed to get a postseason invite for the second time in three years. The Bruins went to three consecutive Final Fours in 2006-08, but have gone a rather pedestrian 56-43 over the past three seasons, leading many to believe Howland's days as coach were numbered.
The struggles, however, might have been a blessing in disguise. Muhammad said during his ESPNU appearance that part of the reason he chose UCLA was to help resuscitate the once-mighty program.
"I think it's a challenge knowing how bad they were these last two years and it's a challenge to really get them back up to the top," he said.
Howland acknowledged that he used the prospect of being a part of a turnaround as a selling point for this year's recruits and adding Muhammad, the No. 2 recruit in the nation, to a class that already included No. 5 Anderson and No. 41 Adams, gave UCLA the No. 3 ranked recruiting class in the nation.
Forward Tony Parker, the No. 26 recruit, is still undecided but has UCLA high on his list. Should the Bruins land him, they are sure to vault past Arizona and Kentucky for the top spot.
"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 said. "We have not been where we wanted to be the last few years and we want to be champions. We’ve been in my tenure here to the Final Four and we want to get back there again."
With this recruiting class, UCLA will be expected to do just that. The Bruins are losing Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson from their regular rotation, but have a potentially imposing front court of Joshua Smith, David Wear, Travis Wear and Anthony Stover returning along with guards Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell. North Carolina transfer Larry Drew will also be eligible and UCLA will have the depth is sorely lacked this season.
With Muhammad, Anderson and Adams joining that group and Parker potentially also coming, UCLA fans will be looking for a Pac-12 title and a run to the Sweet 16 or deeper come NCAA tournament time. That kind of pressure is just fine with Howland, who suffered an entirely different kind of pressure this past season.
"It’s exciting to have these kind of expectations," Howland said. "They are real, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. You have to earn everything that you get. There is nothing that is going to substitute for hard work, discipline, sacrifice for one another and most importantly, playing as a team."
Muhammad is not likely to stay more than one season. He is the third national high school player of the year UCLA has signed under Howland and the last two -- Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday -- both left for the NBA after one season.
But just by announcing he is coming to UCLA, he has reinvigorated interest in UCLA basketball. Muhammad, Howland and UCLA were all among the top trending terms on Twitter on Wednesday evening. And the fact that a player of Muhammad's caliber would sign with UCLA means that the Bruins can once again re-join Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina in the pantheon of college basketball.
"It’s all about recruiting and the players," Howland said. "I think this is going to invigorate our recruiting efforts and I’m excited about that. When other kids see kids that we’re attracting and that are coming here now, I think that’s a great thing for recruiting in the future."