Ninety minutes before UCLA opened its season against Indiana State in the first game at newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins made an announcement that tempered the celebratory mood.
UCLA revealed the NCAA has declared highly touted freshman Shabazz Muhammad ineligible indefinitely due to a violation of amateurism rules, not a surprising ruling but certainly a damaging one. Muhammad, a 6-foot-5 wing, was the centerpiece of a recruiting class UCLA hoped would revitalize a program that has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons.
What remains unclear is exactly how much time Muhammad will miss. The NCAA's initial ruling reportedly stems from a financial adviser paying for Muhammad's travel and lodging expenses during several of his recruiting visits, but the NCAA's statement says it's also looking into "other pending issues" that could impact the length of his suspension.
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero issued a statement Friday that says the school is "extremely disappointed" by the NCAA's decision. The Bruins reportedly had hoped the fact that the financial adviser in question is a longtime family friend of Muhammad and his parents would lead the NCAA to reach a different decision.
"The University and our compliance staff have fully cooperated with the NCAA throughout this entire period, and we believe the decision is incorrect and unjust to Shabazz," Guerrero said. "UCLA will expeditiously pursue its options to challenge this determination. When a final resolution has been reached by the NCAA, we will swiftly communicate the news to the entire Bruin family."
Guerrero's use of words like "finally," "incorrect" and "unjust" surely stems as much from his displeasure with the timing of the NCAA's announcement as the fact that Muhammad cannot play.
UCLA spent $136 million renovating Pauley Pavilion and hoped that Friday night's game would be a celebration of a new building and a new era. Instead that will be overshadowed by the absence of a player touted as the best freshman to come to UCLA since Kevin Love and a potential top five pick in next June's NBA draft.
The NCAA defended the timing of its announcement by noting that it requested specific documents on July 31 and did not receive the majority of the information it needed until September or October.
"After reviewing thousands of pages of information, the NCAA interviewed Muhammad's parents last week," the NCAA's statement read. "The staff and the university then submitted the agreed-upon facts the afternoon of November 9. The NCAA then rendered a decision within a matter of hours. As demonstrated by the facts, we are committed to resolving the remaining matters as quickly as possible."
Muhammad watched UCLA's game against Indiana State from the bench in black-rimmed glasses, a cap and a blue T-shirt. He grimaced as the Bruins scored just one field goal in the opening six minutes against a Sycamores team that lost four of five starters from last season.
The mood surely wasn't much better in the stands, where some students wore "Free Shabazz" shirts. On a night once billed as a celebration, there were more angry or anxious faces than anything else.