LOS ANGELES -- The basketball season is still four months away, but Shabazz Muhammad can already feel the pressure starting to build.
Muhammad has been at UCLA less than two weeks but has already seen the people pointing at him as walks by and heard the whispers about how he and his fellow freshmen would be the guys to pull UCLA out of the college basketball doldrums.
Muhammad is used to that kind of attention having been the top high school recruit in the nation for most of the past year, but the stage suddenly became a lot bigger when he arrived at UCLA to begin summer school on June 25.
During the recruiting period, everyone fantasized about the potential monster recruiting class, with Muhammad joining Kyle Anderson, Tony Parker and Jordan Adams. After all four signed with UCLA, giving coach Ben Howland the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, the fantasy turned to speculation about just how good UCLA would be.
But fantasy and speculation turned to reality once those four players stepped onto campus. Even though they could barely find their way from dorm rooms to class rooms and practice facilities, they were looked at as the guys who would lead UCLA back to the college basketball promised land.
“I could feel the pressure right away,” Muhammad said. “There’s been a lot of talk about this class and what we’re going to do for UCLA, but now we’re here and we have to go out there and prove ourselves. It’s a great opportunity for us, but it’s also a lot of pressure.”
Anderson, Parker and Adams also used the word “pressure” several times when talking about arriving at UCLA. A certain amount of pressure comes with the territory of being named the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, but the pressure for these guys is different.
UCLA has a storied tradition with 11 national championships and a place on the Mt. Rushmore of college basketball programs, but the Bruins are in the midst of a downturn. They missed the NCAA tournament last season for the second time in three seasons and haven’t made it to the second week of the NCAA tournament since a run to the Final Four in 2008. Add to that a Sports Illustrated report last March that painted the program in an unflattering light and you have a program on the brink of sliding into oblivion.
Yet somehow Las Vegas bookmakers list the odds of UCLA winning the national title at 15-1. Only Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky --- teams that made deep runs in the NCAA tournament last season -- are more heavily favored. The arrival of Muhammad, Anderson, Parker and Adams is a major reason why.
“All of us know that they had a down year last year, so they brought us in here for a reason and that was to win,” Adams said. “We know there is going to be pressure because we’re expected to do big things. It’s going to make us better because we don’t want to be embarrassed by pressure. It’s going make us dig down and fight.”
Some have called this class the saviors of UCLA basketball and of Howland’s job. Muhammad is the type of dynamic scorer who can elevate a team by himself. Anderson, an enigma as a 6-foot-9 point guard, provides a matchup nightmare for opponents because of his post-player size and guard-like skills.
Parker is a big-bodied, 6-9 post player and Adams is the lethal outside shooting specialist. In the ESPNU class of 2012 high school prospect rankings, Muhammad was No. 2, Anderson No. 5, Parker No. 26 and Adams No. 41. Only defending national champion Kentucky had a class that compared.
It’s a class that on paper certainly appears to have what it takes to pull UCLA out of its current tailspin, but that savior talk might be taking it a little too far, according to the players. Saying that infers that the program needs to be saved, and they just don’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we’re the saviors,” Parker said. “I think we’re just putting some light on something that was already there. We’re just picking up where things left off a few years ago. John Wooden started all this. When a team has 11 national championships, there isn’t anybody who can be a savior or anything like that.”
They can, however, help UCLA return to the nation’s elite. Howland had UCLA very much in the national championship picture when he led the team to three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006 to '08, but the past three seasons have been mostly forgettable as the Bruins have endured a mediocre 56-43 record in addition to off-court indignity.
Pulling off a turnaround that puts UCLA back in the national championship picture is a major motivating factor for the incoming class. It would have been easy to turn away UCLA during its downturn in fortunes, but all four freshmen cited the opportunity to turn around the program as a primary reason for picking UCLA.
“If I’m on a team who helped turn the program back to where it was before, that puts my name and my teammates’ names up there with UCLA legends and greats,” Anderson said. “If we’re able to get UCLA back to where it was before, that just marks our names in this storied tradition.”
The first step in reversing the current down cycle was getting the players on campus. The next step lies in figuring out the proper way to use them. Howland has found himself in a perfect storm in that regard. First, the NCAA relaxed restrictions on summer practice, so coaches are allowed to hold practices for two hours a week.
And second, UCLA will embark on a trip to China for three exhibition games in late August, so Howland will be allowed to hold 10 full practice sessions in advance of that trip.
“That extra time is huge for us this year,” Howland said. “It’s going to help build the relationship between the coaches and the players and build the chemistry between the players, and all that will help get these guys integrated. That is a good thing for this team, especially since we’re so young.”
Howland says he plans on emphasizing the up-tempo game during these summer workouts. With the athleticism of Muhammad and Anderson along with speedy point guard Larry Drew -- a senior transfer from North Carolina who is the other new face for UCLA this season -- the team is well-suited to push the tempo.
And with good depth at every position for the first time in several seasons, Howland said he’ll be able to rotate guys in and out more often so speeding the tempo won’t cause too much fatigue.
“We’re really trying to speed up how fast we’re going to get the ball up the floor and take advantage of having good depth by playing faster,” Howland said. “Obviously, we want to build our defense from day one, but we want to get a lot better than we’ve been at pushing the ball the past couple of years.”
The arrival of a highly anticipated freshmen class has had the side effect of inspiring the returning players. Practices so far have been ultra-competitive with older players knowing they will have to step up their games to avoid losing playing time.
It’s a different practice environment than Muhammad remembers seeing when he came to UCLA on a recruiting visit last season.
“Last year, I remember watching them practice and they weren’t practicing hard and it wasn’t a good practice,” Muhammad said. “We’re getting after it this summer. Guys like Josh [Smith] don’t want to get embarrassed. It’s a whole culture change and I think that’s really going to change our team and make us a really good team.”
Getting there isn’t going to happen overnight. Anderson is unable to participate in live drills until Aug. 1 as he recovers from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb. Muhammad sprained his ankle last week and was in a walking boot earlier this week -- a grim reminder that one wrong step could derail a lot of the hopes for this season’s team.
“We don’t really talk about turning the whole thing around in one day or one week or one summer,” Anderson said. “We have an entire roster of guys that want to bring it back to where it used to be and turn it around from that downward trend that people are saying UCLA is going, but we know that it’s going to be hard. If being good was easy, everybody would be good, so we know it’s going to be difficult and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
Muhammad is also waiting to hear from the NCAA regarding his eligibility. The NCAA is investigating ties between his family and a pair of financial advisers, but Muhammad said he expected to be on the floor when the Bruins open a refurbished Pauley Pavilion on Nov. 9 against Indiana State.
“Right now, I think I’m eligible to play,” he said. “I’m in constant communication with [the NCAA] and it’s going good so far.”
Howland said he hasn’t heard anything either way.
“That’s an ongoing process,” Howland said. “It’s just a process that’s continuing, so I have no definitive answer on that.”
Losing Muhammad for any period would deal a significant blow to UCLA’s designs on climbing back to the top. He is expected to be UCLA’s top scoring threat this season and he’s also a natural alpha dog who intends to step right into a leadership role on the team.
“I think last year this team didn’t really have a leader to uphold them throughout the game,” Muhammad said. “I’m just trying to get everybody in line. There are a whole bunch of pieces to this team, a whole bunch of All-Americans. A whole bunch of talent. So if we get a leader like myself, I think we can really go far in the tournament.”
Muhammad, self-confident and assured by high levels of success at every level so far, is not concerned about imposing that attitude as a freshman.
“I think they knew I was going to take that role when I came in, because of my aggressive demeanor,” he said. “I really appreciate them letting me take that role and I’m going to try and do a good job and lead the team every game.”
The goals for this season are very high: Anything less than an appearance in the Final Four would be a disappointment. Parker and Adams would like nothing more than to make the Final Four because it will be held in Atlanta next spring, near the hometowns of both players.
Anderson says he can’t see anything that would prevent such a run other than if the Bruins start looking ahead. Muhammad, already projected as a lottery pick in the 2013 NBA draft, said he would put his NBA career on hold if UCLA fails to reach the Final Four this season.
“Obviously, I’m looking forward to us doing really well in the tournament and then we’ll see what goes on from there,” he said. “I could see myself coming back if we don’t do a really good job in the tournament because that means I didn’t do what I was supposed to do coming here, and just leaving wouldn’t be right.”
Passing up millions of dollars if he doesn’t lead the team deep into the NCAA tournament?
Now that’s pressure.