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Uncertainty lingers for Bruins on opening night

As UCLA gets ready to christen new Pauley Pavilion on Friday, many questions remain unanswered. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

LOS ANGELES -- Nobody told the UCLA Bruins basketball team that their sparkling new arena comes with an elephant in the room.

The Bruins will christen the newly-refurbished Pauley Pavilion on Friday night in a glitzy, hoopla-filled season opener for a team that opens the season with dreams of a Pac-12 Conference title, a run to the Final Four and turning UCLA back into a national power, but the dark cloud hanging over all of it is not knowing when or if star recruit Shabazz Muhammad will be eligible to play.

High expectations, nothing new around the proud UCLA basketball program, have to be tempered somewhat until the NCAA sorts out whether Muhammad received improper benefits during his recruiting process over the past year or so.

With Muhammad, the Bruins are a legitimate national title contender with the type of size and athleticism that poses matchup problems across the board. Without him, they lack the type of impact player who can carry a team though the NCAA tournament and might have to downgrade their best-case scenario for the season.

There is no official word on when the NCAA will rule and until the governing body does, it seems Muhammad's uncertainly is all anyone wants to talk about regarding UCLA's program. But UCLA is as much in the dark on this as anyone so even as the Bruins can't wait to move back in to a Pauley Pavilion that received $136 million in upgrades over the last two years, they have no choice but to wait out the NCAA and move toward Friday's opener without the projected NBA lottery pick.

"All of us want him to play," center Joshua Smith said. "Everybody knows what he brings. But it's just a process that's taking a long time for him waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting to hear something. It just sucks for him, but we're going help him through it and we're going to be ready for the season with or without him."

The Bruins have three returning starters and five returning players who played significant minutes last season, but most of the focus on this year's team has been on an incoming freshman class that was ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPNU.

Muhammad, the national high school player of the year last season, was a major part of that but not the only part. Guard/forward Kyle Anderson was the No. 5 high school player in the nation and has been slated to start at small forward after getting NCAA clearance last week in a separate eligibility review.

Post player Tony Parker and sharpshooter Jordan Adams were also part of class that boasts four of the top-40 ranked high school players in the nation. Add in North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II, who will start at point guard, and there are a lot of new faces expected to play a significant role.

But this is a team that greased its wheels during a three-game exhibition trip to China in August and enters the season much further along in the chemistry department than it otherwise might have been.

"It's crazy because our bond got so close through China and we are all comfortable playing with each other," Adams said. "We have to stay level headed with all the expectations, but I think we're doing a good job of staying humble and not falling in to the hype. We're just looking forward to getting out there and showing what we can do."

What they hope to do is to get rid of the bitter taste left by last season. The Bruins entered last season as the Pac-12 title favorites and ranked No. 17 in the preseason polls, but stumbled out of the gate with losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State.

They lost four of their first five games and five of their first seven.

Things unraveled further when coach Ben Howland dismissed all-conference forward Reeves Nelson from the team for conduct unbecoming a UCLA player.

Later in a the season, a Sports Illustrated article painted UCLA as a program in disarray and the Bruins did little to quell the notion by finishing 19-14 overall, fifth in the Pac-12 and missing the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.

This year, with the heralded freshman class arriving in time to bring an aura of excitement for the grand re-opening of Pauley, has been pegged as a rebirth for a UCLA program looking for a return to glory -- or at least the glory days of three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2005 to '08.

"Last year was disappointing," forward David Wear said. "A lot of us want to move on from it, but yeah, that's not the type of year we wanted and everyone is excited to get out there and show everyone how talented this team is and how hard we've been working to turn the program around."

Some of that turnaround will depend on if returning players such as Wear and his twin brother Travis, 6-foot-10 forwards who transferred from North Carolina two years ago, have taken a step forward in their development.

The biggest question mark belongs to Smith, the 6-10 center who dealt with conditioning and motivation issues all last season and was one of the biggest disappointments in all of college basketball.

Smith averaged only 17.2 minutes a game as conditioning issues led to significant foul trouble. He says he is happier and fitter as the Bruins are about to begin play.

"I want to be out of foul trouble and be able to perform and not a lot of liability on defense or in foul trouble," Smith said.

The Bruins will have a lot of new faces and Howland promises that the team will also have a new-look up-tempo offense to maximize the athleticism of players such as Norman Powell, the Wear twins and Muhammad, when he joins the team. He also has superior ball handlers in Drew and Anderson, who will often play at the same time.

And even with so many new players in key roles, Howland said they should have no trouble dealing with the high hopes of this season because as successful players from successful programs, they are used to such expectations. Having them together for the China trip helped work out the chemistry kinks, he said.

"They're all from outstanding high school programs where they've had a lot of success," Howland said. "We have a lot of expectation going in based on the fact that we got together this summer. I thought we made progress this summer both with the 10 practices we had and the games that we played in China. I'm really excited about it."

Muhammad, of course is the X-factor. The NCAA could rule at any time, which means Muhammad could re-join the lineup at any time. It's impossible to guess when that ruling will come, if he will be deemed ineligible and, if so, for how long.

All the Bruins know is that if Muhammad does play, he'll fit right in.

"I think he'll be fine," Adams said. "In practice we haven't been treating him like he's ineligible. We go over the plays with him and he's been practicing when he can. When he is cleared to play, he'll step in and he'll definitely contribute right away."

Until that day comes, however, the Bruins will continue to play on. In the season opener Friday, they play Indiana State, the only other school where iconic UCLA coach John Wooden coached. Next week, the Bruins play home games against UC Irvine and James Madison and then travel to New York to play in the Legends Classic.

And all the while, they play the waiting game.