Eligibility costs Muhammad China trip

Just two days ago, our own Joe Lunardi presented his August Bracketology, yet another edition of an obviously way-too-early-but-nonetheless-fun snapshot preview of the season to come. Myron and I debated it, and one of the major things we agreed upon is that, yes, while UCLA is very talented, and Joe’s decision to give them a No. 1 seed makes sense at a distance, once you start digging into the Bruins’ details you can’t help but feel less bullish about their national title chances. I wrote:

Let’s count the major question marks: Can two freshmen (Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson) step in as the team’s de facto backcourt leaders right away? What about freshman forward Tony Parker? Is Josh Smith going to get down to his fighting weight, and stay there? Can the Wear twins remain productive off the bench? And then there’s Larry Drew II, who quit and transferred away from North Carolina when Roy Williams had the gall to start a transcendent college passer (Kendall Marshall) over him.

Don’t get me wrong. UCLA could be awesome! But compared to, say, Kansas -- a program that hasn’t finished second in its conference for the past eight years -- or teams other No. 1 seeds Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana, the Bruins, talented though they are, are far more worthy of your reluctance.

And we didn’t even get to this:

UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad is not expected to receive eligibility clearance from the NCAA in time for the Bruins’ trip to China and will not play during the Aug. 22–29 trip, according to sources close to the situation.

The NCAA is investigating whether Muhammad, the crown jewel in UCLA’s top-ranked recruiting class, received improper benefits during his recruitment. The organization has not made any determinations on Muhammad’s eligibility, but the team does not want to take any chances, sources said.

The improper benefits the NCAA is investigating are related to financial dealings between the Muhammad family and family friends Benjamin Lincoln and Ken Kavanagh, the L.A. Times reported July 30. At the time, UCLA was “expecting good news on” Muhammad, who told the paper he hadn’t broken any rules, “showed the NCAA that we have done everything correctly,” and fully expected to play in his team’s home opener against Indiana State.

Two weeks later, Muhammad's NCAA eligibility issues are yet to be resolved. From UCLA’s perspective, It would be nice for Muhammad to get to go to China -- I want to go to China! -- and even better to let him get some real, live game action in a largely rebuilt and freshmen-oriented lineup. But if sitting China out is the price Muhammad has to pay to a) not hurt his team if he is eventually ruled ineligible and/or b) be able to play when the season begins in November, well, so be it. No big deal.

That doesn’t mean UCLA fans aren’t at least slightly freaked out, and understandably so. Freshman guard Kyle Anderson missed early practices with a pre-existing hand injury. Freshman forward Tony Parker will miss the China trip thanks to a hamstring injury he suffered in practice (and he could miss up to a month). Of the four highly touted recruits in coach Ben Howland’s stellar incoming class, only Jordan Adams, the No. 9-ranked small forward in the country, has avoided both eligibility and injury issues. Meanwhile, forward Anthony Stover was dismissed Aug. 6 for failing to meet the NCAA’s academic eligibility requirements. All told, that leaves UCLA with just eight scholarship players to take to China, and it’s hard to make the most of a foreign exhibition trip -- a major team-building activity both on and off the floor, a leg up on competitors whose foreign trips aren’t scheduled for this offseason -- when your most talented and youngest players can’t participate.

On Tuesday night, in a post that asked “Is Howland cursed?” the die-hards at Bruins Nation were feeling less than calm:

Or is this some sort of karmic payback? […]

Of the fab four freshman, Kyle Anderson missed the first practices because of a pre-existing injury. Shabazz had a high ankle sprain and missed many. Then Tony Parker got hurt and is out for China.

The #1 recruiting class have not practiced together when they were all healthy. To say nothing of Stover leaving. UCLA is down to 8 scholarship players but more importantly the entire team has yet to play together.

This is getting ridiculous.

You can feel their pain. This was supposed to be an all optimism, all the time sort of summer for UCLA, during which an insanely talented freshman class could fully assert itself within a struggling Bruins program without having to wait until November to do so. Now, with Muhammad facing eligibility concerns and Parker injured, this team may have to learn on the fly come November.

No, these are not positive signs. But nor are they death knells. They’re merely more questions surrounding what is now unquestionably the single biggest risk-reward entity in the upcoming college hoops season. Stay tuned.