I had UCLA ranked 25th in the preseason.
That was well below where everyone else had them.
The pieces didn’t fit for the Bruins. Their point guard play was reliant up a 6-foot-9 freshman, Kyle Anderson, nicknamed ‘slo-mo’ and a guy that flamed out at North Carolina, Larry Drew II, in about as epic a fashion as you’ll see. Their roster makeup included a lot of freshmen, a couple of overweight big men, a lack of perimeter shooting and no where near the kind of defensive ability we’re used to seeing with a Ben Howland team.
But most importantly, Shabazz Muhammad was dealing with eligibility issues. There was no indication, at the time, of when — or if — he’d ever be allowed to play college basketball.
Well, now we know the answer to that: he’ll be in the lineup on Monday against Georgetown.
And that means that UCLA’s potential this season skyrocketed.
The biggest concern I had with Shabazz’s return is that sitting out ten games would mean that his return to the lineup could cause issues with the rotation, with understanding of roles, with minutes that wings play. And his return could still cause those problems, but tendencies that are built up over three games are much easier to break than habits developed over a third of the season.
The bottom line is this: Muhammad is a top five pick. He’s not a pure scorer at this point in his career, but he’s tough, incredibly athletic and as competitive as anyone in the country. They are different players, but imagine the impact that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had on Kentucky last season. That’s how big of a deal Friday’s ruling by the NCAA is.
What this ruling doesn’t change, however, are the other underlying issues: roster makeup, Josh Smith’s weight problems, perimeter shooting.
But the infusion of talent will make it easier for UCLA to overcome those issues.
So is UCLA still the 25th best team in the country?
I’ll tell you on Wednesday morning, after the Legends Classic.