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Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Still many questions for UCLA basketball

By Peter Yoon

Ben Howland
Ben Howland could not answer any questions Wednesday about the eligibility of two of his top players.

LOS ANGELES -- For a team that was supposed to have found answers in a high-profile recruiting class, the UCLA Bruins sure have a lot of questions.

A program that seemed to have a solution to making another run at a national championship after missing the NCAA tournament in two of the past three years is now surrounded by problems.

And coach Ben Howland, who seemed to have a surefire ticket back to the Final Four, is now surrounded by uncertainty.

The questions, problems and uncertainty relate to an ongoing NCAA investigation surrounding the eligibility of touted freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson -- the two main cogs in a recruiting class that was supposed to put UCLA basketball back in the national spotlight.

The light is shining on the Bruins, all right, only now it's being shined by the NCAA, which has not issued final amateurism certification for Anderson and Muhammad even as the Bruins are about to begin practice Friday.

The investigation has cast such a cloud over the program that UCLA vice chancellor of legal affairs Kevin Reed monitored UCLA's annual basketball media day Wednesday to make sure Howland and the players did not address any questions about the investigation.

So with less than a month to go before the season begins with the grand reopening of a refurbished Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins don't know if their two top prospects will be on the floor for the Nov. 9 season opener against Indiana State.

"I'm just not going to comment with anything having to do with the ongoing investigation," Howland said with Reed lurking close behind. "It's inappropriate and it's not fair to the players. It's just a matter of their confidentiality with respect to the process. We're moving forward and I'm very hopeful and very optimistic that everything is going to work out and just waiting for the process to unfold and take place."

How it unfolds will greatly affect how this season turns out for UCLA. Muhammad was generally considered the top high school player in the nation last season and the type of impact player who could change a program with his signature on a national letter of intent.

Anderson was the No. 5 player, a 6-foot-8 point guard who has drawn comparisons to Magic Johnson because of his size and versatility on the court. Add in big man Tony Parker and sharpshooter Jordan Adams and UCLA has a class that should help return the Bruins to Howland's glory days of three consecutive Final Fours in 2006-08.

Now it remains unclear when those guys will all take the floor at the same time. Anderson was "close" to being cleared about a month ago, a source said, but the NCAA has yet to rule on either player.

"There's always going to be adversity and there's always going to be uncertainty," Howland said. "You always have to deal with overcoming adversity as a player and as a team and that's something that our players will do nicely."

The unofficial unveiling of this new team was supposed to take place during a weeklong trip to China in late August, but the school, in a show of good faith, kept Muhammad home from that trip. Parker was also injured and unable to play.

Muhammad also dealt with a high ankle sprain that Howland called "one of the worst I had ever seen" and was unable to participate in most summer workouts. Now Tyler Lamb, a starter at guard last season, is out two to four weeks after undergoing surgery to repair loose cartilage in his left knee, so the team will begin official practices Friday having played and practiced together in full only a handful of times.

"All of us are excited about what we can do for the team and just try to put us in the best position we can for when we have a full team," center Joshua Smith said. "Kind of see where we can finally go. A lot of times when we've had a full team were in practice so we haven't been in a game situation with a full team, but we're all excited and positive for the season."

Muhammad said he, too, was itching to get on the floor with his new teammates, no matter when that might be.

"I'm really excited to be able to play with these guys," Muhammad said. "I've been playing in practice with them and just enjoying myself. The chemistry is coming really well with all of us."

If and when all the Bruins ever get to play together, UCLA should be formidable. Many projected it as a top-five program going into this season, but the uncertainty surrounding Muhammad's and Anderson's eligibility has lowered expectations a bit, especially considering the Bruins' toughest games come early in the season when the freshmen could be forced to sit.
The returning players have welcomed the freshmen and the raised expectations they have brought to the team this season.

"We knew that expectations this year were going to be high," forward Travis Wear said. "There was a lot of publicity going around. ... Shabazz is a high-profile athlete and with the No. 1 recruiting class, I knew it was going to put a spotlight on us."

He just didn't realize the NCAA would be shining that light.