By BETH HARRIS
LOS ANGELES — With new recruits Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker, along with a newly renovated arena almost ready to open, things appear to be looking up for UCLA’s basketball program months after last season ended in turmoil.
Expectations — always high at a school that owns a record 11 national championships — are through the roof for the Bruins to be back in title contention after coach Ben Howland landed one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
But there are a couple of clouds on the horizon.
Muhammad and Anderson, the centerpieces of the freshmen class, are also the subjects of individual NCAA investigations and neither has yet to be declared eligible for the upcoming season.
The NCAA is investigating alleged benefits that Muhammad received and his relationship with a financial planner who helped fund his Las Vegas-based travel team. Anderson’s case involves a reported relationship with an agent.
A university spokesman declared questions about the NCAA inquiries or their potential impact on the program off-limits on Wednesday, when the Bruins met the media. The university’s general counsel lingered in the background monitoring the proceedings.
The Bruins begin practice on Friday, and under NCAA rules Muhammad and Anderson are allowed to participate with the team for 45 days. Either they would be cleared when that time expires or they would have to stop working with the program.
“We’re moving forward and I’m very hopeful and optimistic the process is going to work out,” Howland said, declining to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Muhammad is considered one of the top two recruits in the country, along with Nerlens Noel of Kentucky. Muhammad and Anderson figure to start right away, while Parker and Jordan Adams come off the bench.
“I’m really excited to get to play with these guys,” Muhammad said, gesturing at fellow freshmen Anderson, Parker and Adams. “The chemistry is coming great. We all came from winning programs, and we’ll just try to carry that tradition on.”
Muhammad missed two months during the summer with a sprained ankle, which he says is fully healed. He didn’t travel with the Bruins to China for their summer exhibition tour, although Parker did.
The freshmen will try to meld with juniors Joshua Smith, David and Travis Wear, and Tyler Lamb, who is expected to be out a month after arthroscopic knee surgery this week. Smith’s weight remains an issue for the third straight season. The 6-foot-10 center who tops 300 pounds “is in much better condition to run up and down,” Howland said while adding that Smith still has a lot of work to do.
Smith’s numbers tailed off last season from his freshman year and he was frequently on the bench wearing a grim expression after fouling out yet again.
“I didn’t have fun last year,” he said. “I remember more bad times than good. This year my goal is to try to be on the court more.”
UCLA went 19-14 and missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, capping a dysfunctional season that included standout Reeves Nelson getting kicked off the team and an unflattering Sports Illustrated article that suggested Howland had lost control of the team.
Muhammad watched it all from his home in Las Vegas before committing late to the Bruins.
“I was looking at it like it was kind of a downfall for them,” he said. “We’re picking it up right now.”
Howland’s best recruiting class since the program made three straight Final Four appearances ending in 2008 has bolstered his status after his reputation took a hit from the magazine article. The coach best known for his emphasis on defense is promising the Bruins will run much more and he plans on expanding his rotation to include up to 10 players.
“Expectations are always high at UCLA,” Howland said. “There’s a lot to look forward to. Our returning players have all improved. The chemistry on this team is as good as I can remember.”
The Bruins played most of last season in the dingy Los Angeles Sports Arena with some games in Orange County (a “logistical nightmare” Howland called it) while Pauley Pavilion underwent a $136 million renovation. They won’t start practicing in the arena until Oct. 29, and will play their season opener there on Nov. 9 against Indiana State.
“It is like a brand new building,” Howland said. “It’s going to be great for the next 50 years.”