TUCSON, Ariz. – With UCLA's comfortable game-long lead shaved to five points with about six minutes to play at Arizona, Jordan Adams asked freshman teammate Shabazz Muhammad to step up.
"I told him to put us on his back," Adams said.
Muhammad obliged immediately, hitting a corner 3-pointer and then making a steal, drawing a foul and hitting two free throws. His personal 5-0 run gave the Bruins a 10-point advantage, and that lead never again dipped below six points on the way to an 84-73 triumph in a very hostile McKale Center.
After putting the Bruins on his back with a game-high 23 points, Muhammad put something else on his back before leaving the arena – a black Gucci backpack.
It was a nice look.
Nice enough that I checked Gucci.com Thursday night and found 18 backpacks, with the cheapest going for $990 retail. But, hey, I'm sure these things can be found on sale, right?
I'm not saying there's something fishy about Muhammad's designer backpack, even though most of his teammates were sporting more modest, UCLA-issue models. (Fellow freshman Kyle Anderson also had a designer model.) Asia Muhammad, Shabazz's sister, tweeted an explanation for the backpack, saying she and her mother had purchased it for Shabazz as a gift. I'm just saying a college kid wearing Gucci catches the eye – especially when the college kid is Muhammad.
You might recall the November drama that surrounded the 6-foot-6 wing player's college eligibility.
The high school All-American was under NCAA investigation for impermissible benefits received in high school – and a lengthy suspension appeared to be a possibility until word broke about an NCAA investigator's boyfriend being overheard blabbing about the case on a plane. With the investigation apparently considered compromised, Muhammad was released from NCAA jail after missing only three games and being required to repay $1,600 in benefits received.
That was a season-altering ruling for the Bruins, who now look like one of the most dangerous teams in the nation.
(They also look like one of the best-accessorized teams in the nation. But back to basketball.)
After a 5-3 start that included a mind-boggling loss to Cal Poly and the transfers of Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb, UCLA has gotten its act together in a dazzling way. The Bruins are 11-1 since then, with quality victories over Missouri in overtime, at Colorado and now in a place where Arizona had not lost in nearly a full calendar year.
"We're having a lot of fun," Muhammad said. "Our teammates are really jelling together. We're all on the same page and really playing well."
The page UCLA has gotten on requires speed reading. The formerly plodding Bruins of coach Ben Howland's past have been replaced by the peripatetic Bruins who push the ball downcourt like a track team.
"I don't think anybody can deal with our transition," Muhammad said. "We have so many athletic guys."
Added point guard Larry Drew II: "I haven't seen a team so far this season that can stop us from running effectively."
The only guy capable of slowing down UCLA is Howland. But he's a changed man.
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Heading into this game, UCLA ranked a brisk 59th nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted tempo ratings. The previous seven UCLA teams averaged ranking 218th. Even teams flush with NBA talent were grinders, methodically screening and rolling and dribbling around as time ticked by.
It must be noted that slow has worked in the past for Howland. His Final Four teams were 300th (2006), 266th (2007) and 217th (2008) in tempo. But for this group of Bruins to be as good as they can be, the controlling coach had to let go and let his guys run.
Defense is still non-negotiable for Howland. Always will be. And this team has made significant strides in that department.
But the new calling card in Westwood is rip and run. And Howland is even learning to enjoy watching it.
"We've got to run, period," he said. "Because we're getting easy baskets in transition. Our guys can run."
None of them can run quite like Muhammad, who was a soaring, slashing phenomenon early Thursday as UCLA blasted out of the game up 21-5. Arizona's lone lead Thursday was 1-0, and Muhammad quickly nullified that with a 3-pointer from the wing. Later in the opening onslaught, he had a jumper off an inbounds play and a floater off a curl – shots that came with a high degree of difficulty but went in anyway.
He was white-hot in the middle of Arizona's white-out.
"He's a gamer," Howland said. "When the lights are on, cameras are on, his level raises. It always raises."
If Muhammad keeps raising his game and the rest of the Bruins follow, the ceiling for this team is Georgia Dome-high. There is that much talent here, an intriguing blend of freshman hotshots (Muhammad, Anderson, Adams and Tony Parker) and veteran North Carolina transfers (Drew and twins Travis and David Wear) who are playing the best ball of their careers.
And if UCLA reaches the Final Four, we can all appreciate Shabazz Muhammad's game – and his backpack – one last time on his way to the NBA.
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