A high school kid dressed in a free sweat suit and giant hip glasses strolled across a red carpet into a television studio in North Carolina on Wednesday, stared into a camera and made the failing UCLA basketball program a brilliant promise.
Now it’s up to Ben Howland to keep it.
When top-ranked prep forward Shabazz Muhammad announced he would be joining two other top-50 recruits at UCLA next season, the Bruins were instantly transformed from mediocrity to meteor.
But can Ben Howland maintain the burn?
It’s the best Bruins recruiting haul since Kevin Love showed up on campus five years ago. It gives UCLA its best chance at a national championship since the Bruins played in the actual game more than six years ago. It’s a great day for a coach whose tenure has been marked by recent recruiting mistakes that have led to team turmoil.
But it’s not a victory, it’s a mandate. And with this future blessing, there is a potential curse.
Ironically, by coaxing enough good players to campus to light up new Pauley Pavilion and go deep into the tournament, Howland has put his job on the line if they don’t.
“It’s exciting to have those kinds of expectations,” Howland said Wednesday night. “They’re real.”
Muhammad joins fifth-ranked Kyle Anderson and 41st-ranked Jordan Adams, both guards, as new Bruins, with a chance that 26th-ranked Tony Parker, a center, will join them this week. The last time the coach had a team this good, in Love’s one season here, he steered four potential NBA players to a national semifinal loss to Memphis.
Yet Howland has never had a team with this many incoming stars. He’s never dealt with this many potentially huge egos. His demanding style has never been this urgently tested by so many kids who have been so celebrated so soon.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. You have to earn everything,” Howland said. “There’s no substitute for hard work, being disciplined, sacrificing, playing as a team.”
The pressure will not be on the players, as Muhammad and Anderson will barely stick around long enough for us to learn their names. They will both probably be one-and-done guys, heading for the NBA after the league-required one college season.
All the heat will instead be on a coach who wants to stick around for a few more years. After a couple of lousy seasons with enough locker-room unrest that a national magazine wrote a story about it, Howland needs to prove again he not only can recruit touted players, but can also coach them. After Kentucky won a title this spring with three probably one-and-done players, Howland’s mission will be far greater than just filling new Pauley and making the NCAA tournament.
UCLA now officially needs to be UCLA again, and quickly.
Have you seen Muhammad play? Watch him for 10 minutes and you’ll understand how the Bruins could be in for a wild five months. I saw him dominate the McDonald’s All-American game by slashing and flying, often at the other end of passes from future Bruins guard Anderson.
At a recent workout of top seniors, he was the only one who impressed scouts as being ready for the pros, with one of them telling Yahoo’s Marc Spears, “He’s the only one who can play in the NBA tomorrow.”
Muhammad will put UCLA on national television again. He will fill Los Angeles with Bruins buzz again. He will bring the program back from its current depths as far as Howland allows him to bring it back.
Which makes you wonder, considering that Muhammad also listed freewheeling Kentucky and famous Duke among his three finalists, why UCLA? Why would he come to a struggling program with a struggling head coach whose athletic director actually felt it necessary to issue a news release this spring saying he wasn’t going to be fired?
“I think it’s just a challenge, knowing how bad they were these last two years, a challenge to get them back to the top,” he told the television cameras.
If that’s the case, why didn’t he go to USC, where his father, Ron Holmes, played in the early 1980s? Haven’t they been bad for lots of years?
It would be nice to truly think that UCLA’s storied reputation and John Wooden’s spiritual presence would still be enough to get top recruits. But the answer appears, instead, to be in the family’s deep Los Angeles ties and its belief that Howland can turn Muhammad into the sort of NBA player that Love and Russell Westbrook have become.
There are also indications that Howland will change the offense to involve Muhammad more than he ever involved Love, who scored just 12 points on 11 shots in UCLA’s 78-63 semifinal loss to Memphis in his final college game. This would be a good idea. Despite Love’s public comments to the contrary, there is a belief that his family’s hard feelings about Howland’s use of Love has led to some of the recent recruiting troubles.
“We definitely have to take advantage of his game,” Howland said.
Howland deserves to spend a moment celebrating what could be the beginning of a new Bruins era. And then he needs to make sure it doesn’t finish him.