A familiar UCLA chant broke out in a Chicago hotel room a few days before the McDonald’s All-American high school basketball game.
Kyle Anderson, Bruins point-guard-in-waiting, was trying to teach the eight clap to Shabazz Muhammad, potential Bruins savior-in-waiting.
It wasn’t a flawless rendition.
“Just like me before, you have to work on it,” said Anderson, who signed a letter of intent with UCLA last fall and was lobbying to have Muhammad do the same next week. “I told him we’ll work on it some more when he commits.”
Ben Howland would certainly be willing to give Muhammad all the practice he wants.
The embattled Bruins coach, whose teams have failed to make the NCAA tournament in two of the last three seasons, may need to land the prep phenom to remain embedded on the Pauley Pavilion sideline.
UCLA has gone 56-43 since the start of the 2009-10 season, its worst three-year stretch under one coach since Wilbur Johns went 38-36 from 1945 to ’48 to usher in the arrival of John Wooden.
Athletic Director Dan Guerrero has committed to Howland for next season, though the decision may have essentially amounted to a vote of confidence in Muhammad’s potential to revive the program as the centerpiece of a cast of talented freshmen.
The 6-foot-5 swingman from Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas is widely considered either the best or second-best prep senior in the country, a rare talent whose imprint could transcend what is likely to be his one and only college season. Muhammad combines the gritty, workmanlike demeanor of Howland’s early Bruins recruits with a skill set that would make some NBA players envious.
“He’s a guy who could change the program,” said Greg Hicks, Scout.com’s West Coast recruiting analyst.
Recruiting experts say Muhammad would make UCLA an immediate Pac-12 Conference title contender while reinvigorating a fan base that has largely gone into hiding.
That is, of course, if he decides to become a Bruin.
Muhammad is deciding among UCLA, Duke and Kentucky. He said he would announce his decision on ESPNU on Tuesday, the day before the start of the spring signing period for high school recruits.
If Muhammad and highly touted power forward Tony Parker sign with UCLA, joining a pair of standouts who have already committed to Howland, they would give the Bruins one of the top recruiting classes in the country and their greatest collection of talent since Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison led the team to a third consecutive Final Four in 2008.
Anderson, Parker and Muhammad are all McDonald’s All-Americans, and incoming freshman Jordan Adams, one of the nation’s top high school shooting guards, will be the first-ever Bruin from storied Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
Still, there’s no doubt which player UCLA most wants to see in powder blue.
“Shabazz Muhammad is the guy they have to get,” said Joel Francisco, ESPN.com’s West Coast recruiting coordinator. “He would be such an impact player and possibly a conference player of the year as a freshman.”
Muhammad’s arrival could trumpet a reversal of the program’s sagging fortunes under Howland, the first Bruins coach since John Wooden retired in 1975 to miss the NCAA tournament three times and keep his job. Howland’s troubles were compounded by media reports containing allegations that he failed to control rogue players whose behavior contributed to a rash of transfers and early defections to the NBA.
Howland and Guerrero declined to comment for this story. School officials are not allowed to comment on recruits until those athletes sign NCAA letters of intent.
Worried Bruins fans have already attached the savior label to Muhammad on message boards, pressure that would make many recruits uneasy. Muhammad seems to embrace it.
“I would love to take on that challenge knowing that they had a really down year this year and just knowing how much responsibility I would have to take to help get more wins for the team and try to win a national championship,” Muhammad said. “It’s no pressure at all.”
Howland has tried to massage perceptions about his program in the wake of media scrutiny and another disappointing season, reaching out to Muhammad’s father, Ron Holmes, to discuss changes he intended to make.
“He just basically said he’s going to be like he used to be, more disciplined,” Holmes said. “Everybody is going to be held to a higher standard. He’s going to do the things that’s necessary to run a program in the right way, and I don’t think that’s that difficult to do, especially when he’s done it before.”
Holmes, who was a wing player at USC from 1981 to ’85, said he was not scared off by particularly damaging allegations in a recent Sports Illustrated story, including drug use and player bullying.
“There were some issues there, but there are a lot of issues in a lot of programs,” Holmes said. “I mean, I played college basketball so I know about those type of things. This whole culture now is just, to me, brutal. You’ve got everybody tatted up, marijuana is the order of the day, so you have to understand that and deal with it.”
Muhammad is considered a throwback in terms of his work ethic and competitiveness. Hicks, the Scout.com recruiting analyst, compared him to former Bruins great Arron Afflalo in terms of his intensity but said Muhammad had more talent.
What makes Muhammad special? Anderson, who has played with and against him for three years on the club circuit and in various all-star games, cited a dazzling array of offensive moves.
“He’s the perfect example of a slasher,” Anderson said of Muhammad, who led his high school team to three state titles in four varsity seasons, “but he can also go on the perimeter and knock down a three or go inside and make a nice post move.”
There’s a chance Muhammad might not make any highlights early next season. According to a CBSSports.com report, the NCAA is investigating a pair of financial advisors who allegedly paid for unofficial visits to college campuses and contributed money to Muhammad’s San Diego-based club team.
The NCAA does not comment on pending investigations, and Holmes said his attorney had advised him to not speak about the matter. If Muhammad were found to be involved in any wrongdoing, Hicks said precedent indicated that a worst-case scenario would require Muhammad to repay the parties involved and perhaps sit out a few games.
Muhammad figures to be a big draw wherever he goes, something UCLA could use considering its home attendance has dropped in each of the last four years. Interest bottomed out last season, when the Bruins averaged 6,352 fans as they bounced between alternative home venues while Pauley Pavilion underwent $136 million in renovations.
Renderings of the new arena, which is expected to be ready for the start of next season, impressed Muhammad during a campus visit.
“I looked at the models and it was stunning,” Muhammad said. “The arena is really nice. Getting all the weight rooms downstairs, that’s really a selling point.”
The ballyhooed recruit will make his college decision without having made an official visit to Westwood, but Muhammad has toured the campus multiple times and has family in Southern California.
Muhammad’s ties to the area and Howland’s track record of putting players in the NBA are two reasons Hicks said he believes the prep prodigy will ultimately become a Bruin.
And that could keep Howland a Bruin for years to come.
“Just getting Shabazz, even though he’s considered to be a one-and-done type, that’s building recruiting momentum,” said Francisco, the ESPN.com recruiting analyst. “It will be like ‘OK, they got Shabazz Muhammad.’ That will definitely springboard [recruiting] into 2013.”
Muhammad’s prep peers are acutely aware of his potential significance to their fortunes. Since announcing his intention to become a Bruin, Adams has bombarded Muhammad with tweets and friendly banter in an effort to coax him to Westwood.
“I’ve been in Shabazz’s and Tony’s ear because I know how great of a team we can be adding them,” Adams said.
“It would kind of turn the program back around and get everybody’s heads turned.”
It could also get their newest star freshman’s hands moving again.
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