UCLA's basketball recruiting class draws NCAA scrutiny

The UCLA basketball program needed some good news after last season. Suffering through too many losses and too many negative headlines, the Bruins hoped to turn things around with a blue-chip recruiting class.

But the much-hyped addition of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams has proved to be a double-edged sword.

While giving the team the look of a championship contender, it has also drawn scrutiny from the NCAA. With practice set to begin early next month, Muhammad and Anderson are still awaiting official clearance.

The ongoing investigation into their eligibility has added fuel to Internet speculation that UCLA must have cheated to attract such talented athletes.

"I'm sorry people feel that way," Coach Ben Howland said. "It's unfortunate and unfair to our players … these are all really good kids."

At this point, neither Howland nor his staff appear to be under investigation. But suspicion has become the norm in an era of travel team coaches and agents, prompting increased NCAA screening of high-profile recruits.

UCLA issued a statement this week, saying it was working "closely with the [NCAA] to establish the facts and circumstances for a fair and thorough review."

As the crown jewel of the incoming class, Muhammad has faced the greatest scrutiny. Investigators want to know about money he allegedly received from Benjamin Lincoln, the brother of an assistant at his high school, to help pay for unofficial visits to Duke and North Carolina.

Officials are also looking at Ken Kavanagh, a New York financial planner who partially funded the summer team Muhammad played for in his hometown of Las Vegas.

Muhammad's family has said both men were long-time friends, and thus permitted under NCAA rules to give financial aid. Muhammad has said he expects to be cleared.

The Anderson investigation involves a reported relationship with Thad Foucher, an agent who works with Arn Tellem at the Wasserman Media Group. That company is headed by well-known UCLA alumnus and benefactor Casey Wasserman.

Anderson and Foucher could not be reached for comment and Wasserman declined comment. The NCAA does not discuss ongoing investigations.

As a precaution, UCLA did not take Muhammad on a recent trip to play exhibition games in China. The team did take Anderson, who recorded double-doubles in two of the three games.

Anderson's eligibility is expected to be confirmed soon, according to a person close to the situation who is not authorized to speak on behalf of the university or the player.

While university officials have remained largely quiet on the subject, their recent statement decried "misleading and inaccurate public reports" that three of the four freshmen have yet to be declared eligible.

Parker has been cleared, according to a person not authorized to speak on behalf of the university or the NCAA.

"UCLA will not, and cannot, endanger the privacy of our student-athletes or the confidentiality of the process by providing a more specific response at this time to these reports," the statement said.

But on the recent trip to China, Howland and three of the freshmen provided accounts of their recruitment, addressing at least some of the suspicions surrounding the program.

The Bruins were coming off a 19-14 season in which they failed to reach the NCAA tournament. Howland had suffered the additional embarrassment of a Sports Illustrated article that chronicled player misbehavior and questioned whether he had lost control of the team.

Still, the coach said, he and his staff could boast of a refurbished Pauley Pavilion and a new television contract that will put more games on ESPN this winter. Those were selling points as they pursued a quartet of prospects who had become friends while participating in various tournaments and camps.

"I've known Jordan since I was 9 or 10, and Kyle since I was 12 or 13," Parker said. "We really got close and thought we should go to school together."

The players said they kept in touch more frequently as the recruiting process unfolded. "We texted each other all of the time," Adams said. "Like, 'We should all go to this school or we should all go to that school.' It was fun."

The Bruins had helped their cause by hiring Korey McCray as an assistant coach. He was the former chief executive of an Atlanta AAU team. Parker and Adams are from Georgia.

But the key, Howland said, was coaxing Anderson out of New Jersey. "Kyle was a great get," he said. "He fell in love with L.A."

Anderson and Muhammad were especially close. Muhammad had been quoted saying the 6-9 guard made him look good during All-Star games, feeding him passes at just the right time.

Anderson committed just after Adams, then launched a campaign to persuade the remaining two. As Parker said: "Kyle was pushing it."

Soon enough, Muhammad narrowed his choices to UCLA, Duke and Kentucky. Bruins coaches felt they had a good shot at landing him.

"His parents were so Southern California," Howland said. "There was always that connection with staying where his family is at."

Muhammad committed in mid-April, followed by Parker a week or so later. "It just felt great coming to a team that's kind of down," Parker said. "We were the pieces they needed to win."

None of these explanations are likely to sway critics who cannot get past that the four chose a troubled program over the likes of Duke and Kentucky.

The prevailing gossip includes rumors that Adidas, which sponsors both UCLA and Muhammad's former summer team, played a role. Parker referenced that theory with a tongue-in-cheek comment, calling UCLA an attractive suitor "outside of it not being a Nike school."

CBSSports.com recently polled nearly 100 college coaches nationwide, asking them a series of questions about the state of their sport. Howland finished number three on the list of "perceived" cheaters. Muhammad and Anderson were included among the most suspicious recruitments in recent years.

The poll relied on anonymous responses, allowing coaches to point fingers without being named. And CBSSports.com acknowledged that "this exercise in no way makes accusations, but presents an avenue for views of people directly involved." However, the results illustrate the degree of suspicion that currently hovers over the Bruins.

"I've got no feel for this thing or how long it's going to take to unfold," Howland said. "All we can do is cooperate with the NCAA and that's what we're doing."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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