Las Vegas Bishop Gorman standout Shabazz Muhammad picked UCLA on Wednesday. (Rex Arbogast / Associated…)
Ben Howland laughed so often and seemed so much at ease that you almost wanted to demand he answer some obscure trivia question about his background to prove it was really he.
The typically gruff UCLA basketball coach was in such good cheer during a conference call with reporters Wednesday night because the Bruins had just signed Shabazz Muhammad, ending a three-year recruitment of one of the top prep seniors in the nation.
"Needless to say," Howland said, "I’m very happy right now."
Less than a month after another season ended without an NCAA tournament appearance and Howland’s job status seemed shakier than the San Andreas fault, the longtime coach was back on solid footing thanks to Muhammad’s decision to spend at least one season in Westwood.
Howland praised the 6-foot-5 swingman from Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas as a player who would make a significant imprint in what is expected to be a brief college stay.
"He’s a special, special talent and has so many attributes that will help our team," Howland said. "He’s physically strong right now to be an impact player right away because he’s 222 pounds."
Asked why he thought Muhammad ultimately decided to become a Bruin, Howland cited the player’s family ties to Southern California, UCLA’s recent glut of NBA players, the $136-million makeover of Pauley Pavilion and the opportunity to help the program "rise right back to the top."
Howland also credited incoming freshman Kyle Anderson with assisting his recruiting efforts. Howland said Muhammad called the coach after making his announcement on ESPNU and told the fellow McDonald’s All-American, "Not only are you a great player, you are a great recruiter."
"That’s the best kind of recruiting in the world," Howland said of the peer involvement.
Howland said he hoped to add one player to his spring recruiting class, an obvious reference to highly touted center Tony Parker of Miller Grove High in Lithonia, Ga. Parker is deciding among UCLA, Kansas, Duke, Memphis, Georgia and Ohio State.
Underperforming center Joshua Smith will come back for a third college season, Howland said, giving the Bruins a mix of returning players and highly touted newcomers.
"We’re going to have a nice blend of some really solid veterans who are working hard to improve right now," Howland said, "along with a great influx of freshmen that are among the best entering college this coming year in the country."
Howland credited the Pac-12Conference’s new television deal with ESPN as one of the reasons he was able to lure players such as Anderson and Jordan Adams of Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill after striking out in recent years with East Coast recruits.
Having a player of Muhammad’s caliber in the program could also boost the Bruins' future prospects, Howland said.
"I think this is going to reinvigorate our recruiting efforts," Howland said. "When other kids see the kids we’re attracting and are coming here now, it’s a great thing for recruiting in the future as we move forward."
UCLA's top basketball recruits are a boon — and a burden
UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo is on a different kind of mission
Shabazz Muhammad's signing has Ben Howland positively giddy