UCLA coach Ben Howland is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, as his program was knocked around on the court and in the media.
Wednesday's news, though, has Howland smiling – and likely already thinking ahead to next March.
Shabazz Muhammad, the nation's No. 1 high school player, signed with the Bruins on Wednesday, the first day of the spring signing period. The decision by Muhammad, a swingman from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, means the Bruins landed two of the nation's top three players in this recruiting cycle. No. 3 recruit Kyle Anderson, who can play every position but center, signed with UCLA in November out of Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony.
The Bruins also signed forward Jordan Adams in November. Adams, from Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill, is the No. 62 player in the class nationally.
While it's extremely likely Anderson and Muhammad are one-and-done players, they nevertheless provide a huge infusion of talent to a team desperately needing it. All of a sudden UCLA looks like the team to beat next season in the Pac-12. After finishing 19-14 a year ago and missing out on postseason play for the second time in three seasons. They won't miss out next season.
UCLA loses leading scorer Lazeric Anderson and fellow starting guard Jerime Anderson. But the Bruins return center Josh Smith and forwards David and Travis Wear. Guards Tyler Lamb and Norman Powell also return. That's an OK group of returnees, but when paired with the incoming freshmen, it becomes a formidable lineup.
As good as Muhammad is, Kyle Anderson might be the key. His versatility should be put to good use by Howland. At the least, it needs to be. Howland has been criticized for having too tight a rein on his offense. It's folly to expect him to suddenly oversee a run-and-gun team, but it frankly would be dumb on his part not to let this group play a more up-tempo style.
While Anderson is 6-foot-8, he is an excellent passer and could play the point. He also could also play a point-forward role. He and Muhammad in the open court would be a scary sight for any opponent. And if Smith takes his conditioning seriously and quits looking like the Pillsbury doughboy – in the process, almost certainly earning himself a ton of NBA money – the Bruins could have as effective a trio as there would be in college basketball.
Muhammad's decision also affected Kentucky, which signed No. 2 recruit Nerlens Noel. Conventional wisdom had both Muhammad and Noel signing with the Wildcats.
Noel, who attended The Tilton School in Tilton, N.H., is an athletic 6-10 big man with excellent shot-blocking skills. Indeed, his defensive prowess should remind some of Kentucky freshman center Anthony Davis, the national player of the year this season. But Noel isn't as advanced as Davis offensively.
And while Muhammad bypassed Kentucky, the Wildcats already had struck gold in November, signing two five-star recruits (guard Archie Goodwin of Little Rock, Ark., and forward Alex Pothyress of Clarksville, Tenn.) and four-star center Willie Cauley of Olathe, Kan. UK also remains in the hunt for five-star forward Anthony Bennett of high school powerhouse Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep. Bennett is expected to sign within the next two weeks and is still considering Kentucky, Florida, UNLV, Washington and Oregon.
Bennett, who is a native of Canada, will play in the Jordan Brand Classic high school all-star game Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., and he is expected to meet with Florida's coaches after the game. Florida is considered the favorite to sign Bennett. But Muhammad's decision to attend UCLA could increase the chances that Bennett, who is the No. 7 player in the nation, signs with Kentucky.
Every player in the national top 20 has signed, but there are some top-flight recruits who still haven't picked a school, among them No. 22 Devonta Pollard, a forward from Porterville, Miss.; No. 27 Tony Parker, a center from Miller Grove, Ga.; No. 36 Amile Jefferson, a forward from Philadelphia; No. 58 Christopher Obekpa, a center from Centereach, N.Y.; and No. 63 Anthony January, a forward from Woodland Hills, Calif.