UCLA's comeback hampered by headlines

This is supposed to be UCLA's big year. This is supposed to be the season in which one of college basketball's marquee programs sets aside the forgettable mediocrity of the past three seasons. After last spring's damaging tell-all report in the pages of Sports Illustrated, this is supposed to be Ben Howland's redemption song. This is the year UCLA puts all of the nonsense behind it, puts one of the most talented teams in the country on the floor, and gets back to being, well, UCLA.

It may yet happen. But it's merely September 4, and questions about Howland's program -- particularly the eligibility of two of its incoming stars -- continue to dog the Bruins. From ESPN LA's Peter Yoon:

"Recently, there have been misleading and inaccurate public reports regarding the initial-eligibility certification of our men's basketball team's incoming class," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero's statement said. "Currently, there are two men's basketball student-athletes who have not yet received final amateurism certification from the NCAA."

A source who requested anonymity told ESPNLosAngeles that the two who have not yet been cleared are Muhammad and Anderson. Parker had been the subject of an inquiry, but has since been cleared. There are no further details on the nature of the inquiries into Parker and Anderson.

Guerrero's statement and Yoon's report came just days after the Scout.com UCLA affiliate reported that Shabazz Muhammad's eventual eligibility was "looking less promising," and that the NCAA had been investigating fellow incoming freshman stars Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker as well. UCLA's statement and Yoon's reporting corrected that account, but the report was at least half-right, as Anderson's eligibility apparently remains under review.

This raises a few questions. For one: Just how serious is Muhammad's eligibility situation? For months, many have assumed that Muhammad may have a few minor improper recruiting benefits to sort out, perhaps worthy of a short early-season suspension (a la John Wall in 2009), but nothing that would prevent UCLA's best recruit in a decade (if not longer) from getting on the court sooner rather than later. Now, there's a real concern that Muhammad may miss a considerable portion of the season, or may not become eligible at all. That's all it is right now -- a concern. But when a player this good is still facing eligibility hurdles, it's hardly a surprise to see fans freak out.

And that doesn't even account for Anderson, who like Muhammad is a top-five player in the class of 2012 and the Scottie Pippen to Muhammad's Michael Jordan in Howland's stacked recruiting class. But unlike Muhammad, Anderson actually traveled and participated with the Bruins for UCLA's China trip. If he wasn't yet eligible, why did UCLA allow him to take the trip? Or did something change between now and then? If so, what?

These are all things the NCAA needs to weed out, and sooner rather than later. (Though, as John Ezekowitz pointed out on Twitter, there is no rush to solve amateurism cases in time for classes to begin, because student-athletes can continue their academic work while they're being investigated for amateurism eligibility issues.) There won't be many details forthcoming until the organization finishes its review of Muhammad and Anderson's recruitments, before it finishes digging into their lives as highly touted AAU prospects.

The results of those investigations could be minor -- nothing more than most observers believed would happen before a Labor Day weekend full of frightening headlines and vague official statements. But it now appears more likely than ever that that won't be the case, and that UCLA will have much more serious issues on its hands, particularly related to the two best players in a class lauded as the program's -- and Howland's -- savior.

We'll have to wait and see. There's still plenty of time on the clock. But needless to say, between the ongoing eligibility rumblings and a spate of untimely preseason injuries, UCLA's putative coronation year is not off to a promising start. And if you're a UCLA fan, it's downright unsettling.