LOS ANGELES — At the end of his team's impressive 74-69 victory over Arizona on Saturday night, UCLA coach Ben Howland made a point to approach star freshman Shabazz Muhammad and congratulate him on a job well done.
Muhammad's 18 points, momentum-turning second-half 3-pointer and game-sealing free throws were his most obvious accomplishments, but Howland was most proud of another key play his star freshman made to help complete a season sweep of the Wildcats. After Mark Lyons missed a shot in the lane that would have cut UCLA's lead to one with nine seconds remaining, Muhammad skied high in the air on a sprained ankle and outfought Nick Johnson for a one-handed defensive rebound that paved the way for his clinching foul shots.
"I was very excited about that," Howland said. "Bazz early in the year, was very, very quick to leak out like we were playing in the summer. He's really improving. He has improved so much as a player defensively and defensive rebounding. You can see he's going to be really special for years to come."
Praise like that makes Muhammad feel especially good because it's validation for why he decided to play under Howland in the first place. Instead of going to a school where he could showcase his already celebrated scoring ability and perhaps have a better chance to win a championship as a freshman, Muhammad chose to play for a coach he knew would drive him to become a better defender and rebounder.
Nobody will mistake Muhammad for Stacey Augmon or Andre Iguodala anytime soon, but he has done a better job defensively and on the glass since Howland challenged him at the start of conference play to improve in both areas. Muhammad has shed weight to boost his lateral quickness, improved his defensive rotations and made more of a concerted effort to help UCLA's undersized big men secure defensive rebounds.
"Improving in those areas was the No. 1 reason I came to UCLA," Muhammad said. "I had Kentucky and Duke after me and those are two great programs, but coming here I thought I could really learn how to play defense and rebound because that's going to prepare me for the next level. I feel like it's working. I'm really improving."
Any improvement Muhammad makes at that end of the floor can only help a UCLA team whose strength is its quick-strike offense. The Bruins lead the Pac-12 in points per game and points per possession thanks to the playmaking of Larry Drew and Kyle Anderson, the outside shooting of the Wear twins and Jordan Adams and the slashing and finishing ability of Muhammad.
Muhammad has done nothing to damage his reputation as a scorer by averaging 18.3 points per game, but he believes he'll be leaving UCLA a more well-rounded player than when he arrived. Though Muhammad side-stepped multiple questions about whether Saturday night was his last home game at UCLA and insisted the NBA draft was not on his mind, Howland had already confirmed the obvious a few minutes earlier.
"That was his last game at Pauley Pavilion," Howland said. "No doubt about it. I know that. He knows that. We all know that. ... I'm just keeping it real."
As Muhammad reflects on the first four months of the season, he insists he is pleased with what he and the team have accomplished so far.
UCLA has overcome a deflating early loss to Cal Poly, the November transfer of two former starters and persistent questions about Howland's job security to tie Oregon for first place atop the Pac-12 with two games to play. And Muhammad has validated his offseason hype as one of the nation's top freshman scorers while also shoring up some of the weaknesses in his game.
"It has been great playing at UCLA," Muhammad said. "It was definitely the right decision coming here. We're all like brothers out there and the added focus on defense and rebounding has really helped me a lot."
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