Philadelphia, PA – In case you haven't heard, the UCLA basketball team has undergone a facelift over the past few weeks.
Head coach Ben Howland is no longer with the program, succeeded by former New Mexico coach Steve Alford, which is somewhat of a surprise given that he's one of only three active head coaches to have led his program to three consecutive Final Fours. The other change comes in the form of 6-foot-6 freshman forward Shabazz Muhammad declaring himself eligible for the 2013 NBA Draft.
The announcement on April 16 by Muhammad was the worst-kept-secret in college basketball, as from the his days in high school it was clear that he was simply biding his time until he was eligible to take his talents to the next level.
Muhammad is not the first UCLA player to be one-and-done before heading off to play with the big boys of the NBA, as you can add Trevor Ariza, Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday to that list from the last several years, but the newest member of that group has made more than his fair share of mistakes along the way.
The Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year and a member of the All-Pac-12 First Team for 2012-13, Muhammad was a blue-chip standout at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. He led all high school seniors in scoring with a 29.4 ppg average and was named the 2012 Naismith Boy's High School Player of the Year, so his star was already glowing bright in Sin City.
However, the transition to college didn't go nearly as smooth as planned because on Nov. 9, 2012 UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero announced that it had been determined that Muhammad and his family were in violation of the NCAA amateurism rules and was consequently ineligible to compete with the start of the season only days away.
Unlike many issues that the NCAA has dealt with concerning a star player, this one was fast-tracked to ensure an early resolution and just a week later, after sitting out three games, Muhammad was granted permission to hit the hardwood for the Bruins and coach Howland.
"I am relieved that this long, arduous process has come to an end. So many people worked very hard on this case and I am eternally grateful to them as well as the Bruin family, who stood by us throughout. I am pleased that Shabazz will be able to begin his collegiate career."
And of course, all of this was resolved just days before the Bruins were set to play against Georgetown at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York as part of the Legends Classic. The high-profile debut saw Muhammad score 15 points off the bench.
Muhammad scored in double figures in all but one of the 32 games in which he appeared, logging a trio of double-doubles along the way, but still he was something of an enigma. Everyone understood he was supposed to be the focal point of the team in 2012-13, especially him, and that left little room for others to grab even a small piece of the spotlight.
In front of the hometown crowd at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 7, Muhammad showed some of his true colors when, in a tie game against Washington and the clock winding down, he appeared miserable at the fact that teammate Larry Drew II knocked down the game-winning jumper at the buzzer. Some think that was a sign of his impending greatness, others the behavior of a petulant youngster who was used to getting his way from the moment he could bounce a basketball.
As someone who averaged an even 17.9 ppg during his one and only college campaign, maybe Muhammad had earned the right by then to be the one to decide the outcome of games, perhaps a bit misguided given that many of his teammates had far more experience than the 19-year-old.
Cut the youngster a break, he's not even 20 yet...or is he?
Turns out Shabazz, the middle of three children spawned by Ron Holmes, was not born in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 1993 as originally claimed by his father, but one year earlier elsewhere in the Golden State. It may not sound like that big of a deal and it didn't garner nearly as much attention as the deceit allegedly perpetrated by Notre Dame and Manti Te'o, but still there is an issue to be dealt with that almost no one is talking about anymore.
Why lie about your age? Did it give Muhammad a perceived advantage when compared to other players in high school that were supposed to be measured by the same stick? Was it because he needed to be younger in order to remain in school according to California high school rules? Whatever the reason, it doesn't appear as though it will hurt him in the long run.
Three weeks prior to the discovery of Muhammad's actual age, coach Howland was practically pushing his first-year performer out the door of Pauley and into the NBA following the final home game of the season, a 74-69 victory over nationally-ranked Arizona.
"I'm very much a realist now," Howland said of Muhammad's impending status. "I knew going into this deal that this was a one-year deal, and it should be. He's a lottery pick. He's a top-five pick. When you have that going for you, it is absolutely the right thing."
Howland may have punched his own ticket out of town with his comments the first week of March, but it is still refreshing to hear some measure of honesty in college athletics, even if it did perhaps add another nail in the Howland coffin.
Throughout the highs and lows of Muhammad's brief stay in LA, the bottom line is that he is a talented performer who is destined to play in the pros. However, if Muhammad thinks he is going to step onto the floor at the next level and immediately be the king of the castle, as he assumed would be the case at UCLA, the young man (wink!) is in for a rude awakening.