With the uncertainty surrounding Shabazz Muhammad's eligibility, it's difficult to rank the UCLA Bruins. With Muhammad, they are a potential Final Four contender. Without him, there is still improved talent, but the Top 20 seems like a more reasonable expectation.
Muhammad is recovering from a shoulder injury that has sidelined him throughout much of practice, but the fact that he has yet to be cleared by the NCAA is the truly pressing matter. It is being investigated as to whether he received improper benefits during his AAU time. Bruin Nation is waiting on pins and needles as a decision could come tomorrow or might still be weeks away.
Kyle Anderson faced a similar investigation but was recently given the okay to play. He and Muhammad are supposed to revitalize a UCLA program sorely needing a shot in the arm. Anderson is an incredibly unique talent due to his 6-9 height and point forward abilities. He is by no means a tremendous athlete, but has a terrific feel for the game along with the versatility to play four different positions, which will afford Ben Howland the opportunity to mix and match his lineups.
The Bruins bring in another big-time recruit in the physical Tony Parker, who will compete with Joshua Smith for minutes in the middle. That's a whole lot of size since Smith weighs in at a generous 305 pounds while Parker is listed at 275. Both guys are talented low post scorers, though conditioning will always be an issue for Smith and that could be the case with Parker as well. UCLA also has a pair of intriguing foreign big-men in Adria Gasol (yes, the younger brother of Pau and Marc) and JUCO transfer Sooren Derbroghosian. It will be interesting to watch these guys develop.
The Wear twins return to provide some versatility inside. Travis is more of a post player though he does have decent range on his jumper. He was also the team's top shot-blocker last season. David is a little more of a combo forward since he has more consistency with his outside shot. David can play inside, too, as he led the Bruins in rebounding as a sophomore.
The backcourt is a bit of a toss up. Tyler Lamb is recovering from knee surgery that he underwent a month ago, and his status for Friday's opener versus Indiana State is up in the air. While he improved last season, his minutes could actually get cut with the arrivals of Anderson and Muhammad. Larry Drew becomes eligible after massively underachieving during his three years at North Carolina. How he performs as the floor general this season could be the x-factor for UCLA. If Drew doesn't fully own the point guard position, Anderson will see plenty of time initiating the offense.
Until Lamb gets healthy and Muhammad is cleared, it appears as if Howland will start sophomore Normal Powell on the wing. The Bruins' fourth top-100 recruit in their 2012 class is wing Jordan Adams, who should be a factor off the bench, while redshirt freshman Khalid McCaskill will try to earn some playing time as well.
You have to figure that Muhammad will eventually be able to suit up for UCLA this season. When that happens, the Bruins will undoubtedly have some elite talent across their roster. If Howland can get the group to truly gel as a whole, a Final Four run is not out of the picture.
Player to Watch: Shabazz Muhammad, G/F
For an 18-year old, the lefty is already a man among boys due to his size, strength, and explosiveness at the rim. How well he is able to shoot the ball from the perimeter might be the determining factor in whether or not Muhammad is the top overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/19 vs. Georgetown (Legends Classic in Brooklyn)
11/20 vs. Indiana/Georgia (Legends Classic in Brooklyn)