Thursday, November 23

Bruins have no choice but to wait for NCAA ruling on Shabazz Muhammad's eligibility

We’ll have to see what comes of this trip to a faraway land. It sounds like one full of sightseeing and discoveries that will make a lasting impact on the future back home.

Unlike the Curiosity rover, which got to Mars with all its parts intact, the UCLA men’s basketball team that landed in China today is missing someone. It’s as if coach Ben Howland spent years finding all the right parts for a robot that could rule the basketball universe, only to leave behind a wheel in its first launch.

That key cog is incoming freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who is being forced to stay home while the team tours the Far East. It comes as a result of the NCAA’s ongoing initial review of his eligibility, which has been in question for months.

At issue is Muhammad’s ties to a pair of financial planners who funded unofficial college visits during Muhammad’s recruitment, according to a report from February. That was when the NCAA let schools know that the grand prize of a prospect was under investigation. UCLA pressed on, landing their target in April and inheriting the labyrinthine task of making sure he was eligible to play.

Letting Muhammad practice now, while he still hasn’t been ruled eligible, is within the rules, but only for a 45-day period. After that, he’d be back where he is now without a stamp of eligibility from the NCAA.

With Muhammad currently nursing an ankle injury, it amounts to a non-issue. He strolled to practice Monday in a UCLA T-shirt, Nike shorts and casual shoes, assuming his familiar place in a chair on the baseline while the Bruins went through team drills. While they use this extra practice time granted to them in advance of the trip, Muhammad is sidelined. Even if he was able to practice, his ankle could keep him out anyway.

Down the line, there’s no indication what might happen.

A swift ruling would have been ideal so Muhammad could have started practicing with the team as soon as he got here for the summer. Maybe the NCAA will rule by the season opener on Nov. 9. Or maybe it won’t.

The NCAA doesn’t have a courtroom where two sides tell a story, and an independent arbiter settles a dispute. Don’t throw out lawyering terms like “precedent” or “due process” to the NCAA. It makes all decisions in a vacuum and can “filibuster” all it wants.

So don’t refer to these other recent cases of high-profile recruits tied up in the NCAA’s red tape if you’re trying to figure out what happens with Muhammad (I’ll list them for you anyway):

  • Renardo Sidney, whom Howland once recruited at UCLA, had to sit out nearly the entire 2009-2010 season at Mississippi State as the NCAA reviewed his status. When they finally ruled in March 2010, it ordered Sidney to repay more than $11,000 in improper benefits, and sit out the rest of that season and nine games of the next one for good measure.
  • It took three games into the 2010-2011 season before the NCAA handed Josh Selby a nine-game suspension and ordered him to pay back a fine of about $5,000 before playing for Kansas.
  • Enes Kanter wasn’t as fortunate as Selby. The NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible that same season for accepting around $33,000 more than an allowable amount for “actual and necessary” expenses, determined by the NCAA, from a Turkish professional team. Kentucky’s appeal was denied.

One thing in common with all of those cases is that each investigation required waiting, which is what Muhammad will have to do. Meanwhile, UCLA is in China without one of its best players, hoping that’s not the case when they launch for real on Nov. 9.

If Sam Waterston taught you everything you know about law, email Menezes at [email protected] and tweet him @ryanvmenezes.

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