Moments after choosing UCLA over Kentucky and Duke on ESPNU Wednesday evening, highly touted recruit Shabazz Muhammad delivered a message to Bruins fans watching at home on TV.
"Everyone in Westwood, LA, California, get ready for a great season next year," Muhammad said. "Hopefully we can sell out Pauley."
If anyone can restore the energy that has been missing in Westwood the past few years, it's Muhammad, a 6-foot-6 wing from Las Vegas generally regarded as the premier scorer in the class of 2012. Muhammad was the MVP of last month's McDonald's All-American game and has been UCLA's top recruiting target for the past two or three years now.
The combination of Muhammad and fellow McDonald's All-American Kyle Anderson gives UCLA a pair of talented perimeter recruits whose games complement one-another extremely well. Muhammad is an elite wing scorer and Anderson is a true point forward and a gifted facilitator. Add in fellow signee Jordan Adams and the potential of still getting elite power forward prospect Tony Parker, and that's a talented freshman class to go with some strong frontcourt pieces expected to return next season.
It's hard to overstate the importance of landing this class for UCLA because of the intense pressure on coach Ben Howland to turn the program around next season after a series of disappointing years.
Fan support has dwindled because UCLA has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three years and hasn't made it past the round of 32 since its run of three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 08. Worse yet, the program received a spate of negative publicity this February when Sports Illustrated published a story detailing how Howland lost control of forward Reeves Nelson and other players within the program.
While that story got most of the attention, the truth is it's recruiting as much as discipline that has been the Bruins' biggest recent problem. They've been unable to land an heir apparent to Darren Collison at point guard for three years, they've missed on numerous California prospects and they've had to resort to recruiting some junior college prospects and castoffs from other schools.
To counteract that problem, Howland shook up his staff adding veteran assistant Phil Matthews and Georgia-based AAU coach Korey McCray. It was Matthews who was in charge of recruiting Muhammad while the big test of McCray's ability will be whether UCLA can lure the Georgia native Parker away from Duke, Georgia and Ohio State among others.
What remains to be seen is whether UCLA's recruiting class this year is short-term fool's gold or a long-term turning point.
Historically the Bruins have rarely been able to land top national out-of-state prospects on a consistent basis. They out-dueled Seton Hall for Anderson. They held off a bevy of elite programs for Muhammad, perhaps with the help of his Adidas ties. And they may yet get Parker in part because of the AAU connection between him and McCray.
Howland will probably have to show he can recruit California again to thrive longterm, but this is one heck of a pressure-relieving stopgap. And temporarily or not, it will revive the enthusiasm for UCLA basketball that has been missing in recent years in Westwood.
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