The spotlight of the college basketball world is about to shine on Westwood.
The ESPN College GameDay desk will sit on the Pauley Pavilion floor all day Saturday while the show tapes in front of students who get to feel like belles at a rarely held ball. The UCLA men’s basketball team will then play Arizona in a game crucial to the Pac-12 leaderboard before ESPN tears down the set and leaves. Less than 24 hours after the spotlight is turned on, it will be dimmed.
Having GameDay in town is a big deal, but a fleeting one. The same can be said of Shabazz Muhammad’s UCLA career.
Today the calendar flipped to March, the month most synonymous with college basketball. Three games plus the Pac-12 tournament remain in UCLA’s season before the NCAA Tournament, if the Bruins get there. At season’s end, there’s a good chance Muhammad follows the path that many Bruins have recently taken: withdraw from UCLA during spring quarter, work on basketball around the clock, impress NBA teams, get drafted, profit.
It is no secret that the freshman guard has his eye on playing professional basketball. Were it not for an NBA rule requiring Muhammad to be 19 years old and a year out of high school, Muhammad could have a contract and sneaker deal right now. At least NBA scouts seemed to think so, with some billing him as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the draft before he played a collegiate game.
Instead, he came to UCLA, where his game hasn’t necessarily matched the hype. Muhammad doesn’t deserve blame, since he can control the former but not the latter.
When it comes to watching Muhammad play, it has been an underwhelming season. That’s not just my opinion. It’s also that of NBA scouts and observers charged with evaluating college talent.
Saturday’s game can change that. There will be eyes on the game and plenty of judgment passed afterward. This is the showcase Muhammad needs to correct his slipping draft stock and, in the process, help the Bruins make the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s some of what’s to like: Muhammad has an almost-unparalleled effort level. This season, he has grabbed nearly as many offensive rebounds, which are a challenge to snag, as defensive rebounds. He is a great athlete, as evidenced by the fact that he stands 6 feet 6 inches tall but handles the opening tip against taller players and often wins. He’s also a nice guy, if not a little reserved, and isn’t one to brag.
There are also plenty of shortcomings. Muhammad’s game is that of a volume shooter, one that scores a lot but takes plenty of bad shots for every good shot he makes. Being left-handed is an advantage against some defenders, but opposing teams quickly sniff out that he struggles using his right hand and shade him to that side.
Despite the fact that he often attracts double- and triple-teams that leave others wide open, Muhammad has more turnovers than assists this season and hasn’t shown the ability to make his teammates better. His defense, though improving, has not been tough enough for coach Ben Howland to stick him on the other team’s best guard (that assignment usually goes to Jordan Adams).
Where Muhammad gets drafted to in June has little bearing on UCLA’s success. But if he makes incremental improvements to those holes in his game now, he and the Bruins could prosper together before Muhammad leaves town.
It seemed like that was the case Wednesday against Arizona State, when Muhammad actually tried to be a playmaker. Going against an exceptionally strong defender in Carrick Felix, who had plenty of help from the Sun Devils, Muhammad looked to feed his teammates. Many of his passes didn’t result in assists – he finished with just one – but it was a start.
As great as that game was for UCLA, it’s doubtful that it registered across the country. Tipoff was just after 8:30 p.m., right about the time when scouts on the opposite coast are in their pajamas and watching David Letterman in bed.
That’s why GameDay coming to town, which puts the Arizona-UCLA game in a prime-time slot on ESPN, is important.
Already, we’ve seen how a nationally televised game can impact perceptions. Muhammad was a hero one day, dropping 23 points in a big road win in Tucson, Ariz. He was later a pouter, for seeming to refuse to celebrate after Larry Drew II shot a game-winner to beat Washington at home. Both games were on ESPN.
Muhammad spends more time under a magnifying glass than some ants do, sometimes getting burned when the spotlight shines over him and hits at a particular angle.
The fact that GameDay is even coming to town is parallel to the running theme here. ESPN picked UCLA as a host site in August, back when the Pac-12 didn’t seem as weak and a Wildcats-Bruins matchup figured to feature a couple of the country’s best teams.
Predictions don’t always hit the mark, so Muhammad is not the only over-hyped party here. On Saturday, he can do something to shed that label with the country watching.