The stage was set. With the ESPN cameras and cast of characters from College GameDay positioned at Pauley Pavilion, Shabazz Muhammad not only delivered a particularly memorable performance on the court Saturday, the freshman phenom also made headlines off the court.
Muhammad scored a game-high 18 points to guide UCLA to a 74-69 victory over Arizona in a Pac-12 Conference showdown. He then seemingly backed up the sentiments of his coach Ben Howland and essentially confirmed plans about entering the 2013 NBA Draft.
“That was his last game in Pauley Pavilion, no doubt about it. I know that. He knows that. We all know that,'' Howland said about the distinct possibility that Muhammad played for the last time in Westwood on Saturday. For clarification, it was the regular season finale at UCLA.
“This wasn't meant to be an announcement for Shabazz, I'm just being honest. Just keeping it real,'' said Howland, although a majority of the damage was already done. “I'm very much a realist now. I knew going into this deal that this was a one-year deal, and it should be. He's a lottery pick. He's a top-five pick. When you have that going for you, it is absolutely the right thing.”
When approached about the idea of making the jump to the professional ranks instead of coming back to school, Muhammad appeared to do his best to sidestep the topic.
"It's still a long season of basketball, I kind of thought about it,'' Muhammad said. “I'm really happy I came here and represented UCLA. It was definitely the right decision. The fans here are great, I have enjoyed myself this whole year, getting experience at the college level.”
The words hint at the fact he's accomplished his short-term goals.
On Saturday against the Wildcats, for example, Muhammad scored 13 points in the second half. Eight of those were his teams final 15, in fact. With the Bruins leading by three points and nine seconds left in the fourth quarter, he snatched a rebound out of the air, was fouled in the process and knocked down a pair of free-throws to secure the victory over the country's No. 11 team.
As a result, the Bruins (22-7 overall record and 12-4 in conference) remain tied with Oregon (23-6, 12-4) atop the standings with two more games before postseason play starts. Beyond that, the conference tournament looms large. The NCAA Tournament follows shortly thereafter.
“He has ice water in his veins,'' Howland said about Muhammad to the media in the press conference afterward. “He wants to take the shot. I think the thing that makes him who he is, is how competitive he is. That’s what makes the great ones great. They want to do everything they can to make their team win. You can see how special he’s going to be for a long time to come.”
Howland is not the only person under the impression that Muhammad will bolt to the NBA. This is the first time, however, the head honcho has addressed the issue publicly.
And why not? Howland is merely saying things most have assumed for quite some time. Ever since his days of commanding the nation's No. 2 overall spot in the 247Sports Composite Rankings for the Class of 2012, Muhammad was pegged as a one-and-done type of individual.
His days at UCLA are numbered. There's no disputing that fact, not after the show Muhammad delivered Saturday, both on and off the court, with the national spotlight on him.
Sean Ceglinsky has covered prep and college sports on the West Coast for the better part of the past 15-plus years. Follow him on twitter: @SeanCeglinsky
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