UCLA Bruins freshman Shabazz Muhammad might as well have been a senior Saturday night when his team defeated the No. 11 Arizona Wildcats 74-69 in Pauley Pavilion, because it was his last game in that gym, according to Bruins coach Ben Howland after the game.
“That was his last game in Pauley, no doubt about it,” Howland said.
Muhammad is currently projected as a top 10 NBA lottery pick, but even before he stepped foot onto the Bruins campus, there was a great deal of speculation that he would leave after his freshman year. But Howland knew that this was a strong possibility when he recruited Muhammad.
“I’m very much a realist now,” Howland said. “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.”
Muhammad has proven all season long why NBA scouts have him rated at the top of their board. Saturday was no different; he scored his season average 18 points, including knocking down two clutch free throws with 9 seconds remaining in the game. His free throws helped the Bruins secure a tie for first place in the Pac-12 Conference, along with the Oregon Ducks.
Muhammad said that although he momentarily thought about it being his last game in the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, he has not fully thought about entering the NBA draft.
“It’s still a long season of basketball,” Muhammad said. “We don’t know yet. I kind of thought about it. I just thought about the big win we’re going to have and how important this win was for us against Arizona.”
Even though Howland believes Muhammad will leave, the UCLA fans began chanting “one more year,” in the final minutes of regulation in hopes of persuading the player to return for another season.
“The fans here are great,” Muhammad said. “I’ve enjoyed myself the whole year. I’ve been through a lot this year with injuries and just getting experience at the college level.”
The beginning of Muhammad’s freshman season was halted while the NCAA conducted an investigation into whether he received impermissible benefits. He was required to sit out three games and his family had to pay $1,600 over impermissible benefits he was found to have accepted.
The Bruins and Muhammad will finish their regular season next week on the road against Washington and Washington State, before heading into the PAC-12 conference tournament.