So, now, let's re-consider the season (since we obviously are so good at predictions this year) and look ahead at the possible scenarios for the basketball team, and all of the implications that come with it – including in recruiting -- given its unfortunate start.
UCLA is currently 1-4, not counting the win over D-2 Chaminade, at least in the NCAA Tournament Committee's eyes, since it doesn't count D-2 competition.
Given this, there are three realistic scenarios.
Optimistic Realistic Scenario:The team improves, gets its issues together and pulls out a winning season worthy of getting in the NCAA Tournament. At this point, this scenario is a considerably uphill battle. UCLA is 1-4 in non-conference so far, and its opportunity for at least one signature win against a highly-rated, out-of-conference opponent (Kansas or Michigan) was greatly squandered. It has 7 more non-conference games remaining on its schedule and, on one hand, if UCLA went 7-0 in those games it would, of course, greatly help its profile. On the other hand, it doesn't play what you would project as an NCAA Tournament team in any of those remaining 7 non-conference games, so UCLA wouldn't get that much of an RPI boost from sweeping all of them.
That leads you to the conference schedule. The Pac-12, of course, is relatively pitiful. Cal and Arizona are the only teams that look semi-capable of being top-25 ranked teams. Well, they did. Last week they were ranked #18 and #23, but Cal was spanked by Missouri (92-53) and Arizona lost twice, to Mississippi State (67-57) and San Diego State (61-57), so this week Arizona fell out of the rankings and Cal sank to #24. Of course, both Cal and Arizona, and even Washington, could put it together enough to be a top-25 team by the time the NCAA Tournament Committee goes into their bunker. But, realistically, it appears UCLA will have a lack of any opportunities at big conference wins that could help its NCAA profile.
It also needs to be pointed out that UCLA playing its home games at the Sport Arena this season is a huge factor. UCLA, at least to this point, hasn't had a real home-court advantage. The atmosphere at the Sports Arena is dismal, with very little energy in the building. Perhaps that will change as UCLA gets more rivalry-type opponents in during the conference season. But as of now, it appears that there are some elements of a perfect-storm type of scenario, when you consider that, when Howland's program is dealing with some considerable issues, it also doesn't have the homecourt advantage of Pauley Pavilion to provide a mollifying boost.
But let's say that UCLA mostly turns it around, and wins about 3/4s of its remaining games, conference and non-conference. It would end up at something like 18-12, with no big wins and a very low RPI.
In other words, more than likely, UCLA's only chance to make the NCAA Tournament is to win either the Pac-12 championship or the Pac-12 Tournament.
But that, again, this is the best-case realistic scenario, given what we've seen from this team so far in its first five games.
If you're a bit squeamish, perhaps you shouldn't read on from here.
Pessimistic Realistic Scenario #1 and #2: The other two realistic scenarios aren't nearly as rosey (if that's what you call the one I just described). UCLA could realistically get a bit better, and avert a complete meltdown, and be competitive the rest of the season. That would probably garner it something like a .500 season, anywhere from 14-16 to 16-14.
Then, in the bleakest of scenarios, if it doesn't improve and, perhaps, spirals, there is a losing season looming as a possibility.
How would these scenarios more than likely impact recruiting? It's entirely speculative at this point, but we could probably provide pretty accurate speculation, given our knowledge of UCLA's recruiting landscape.
Of course, the elephant in the room is Shabazz Muhammad, the #1-ranked prospect in the nation. Before this season, it was pretty accepted by just about anyone who is tied into recruiting that UCLA was the prohibitive favorite. There was quite a bit of behind-the-scenes evidence to support that assertion. We have to admit, we haven't heard anything yet that has contradicted that assertion since the beginning of the college basketball season. But we'd have to believe that, if UCLA continued down a dismal path this season, it could greatly impact Muhammad's situation.
Muhammad and his father, Ron Holmes, are very much about going to a program that would provide them a number of things. The head coach's ability to develop Muhammad and get him NBA-ready is clearly a priority. It's one of the reasons Muhammad was favoring UCLA and Ben Howland. To do this in a stable, non-controversial environment would have to be a very important addendum to that requirement. When you're the #1 player in the country, have clear NBA ability and early-NBA-jumping aspirations, you don't want distractions in possibly your one college season. You certainly don't want anything that is going to detract from your end goal. Doing all this on a very competitive team would be a priority, because teams that win at a high level tend to have more stability (everyone's mostly happy when a team is winning). Probably even more importantly, a team that goes deep into March and even April gets a potential NBA jumper more exposure. If you're leading your team to the Final Four it almost certainly is boosting your NBA Draft stock.
I'll come out and say that I would be highly surprised if Muhammad went to a program that exhibited any potential for controversy, internal problems, profound chemistry issues, disconnects between players and coaches, or any other "distractions." Why would they? No one in their shoes would either.
In my opinion, then, in getting Muhammad, it's highly important at the very least UCLA establishes some stability in its program. The issue with Reeves Nelson is a potential blemish, and any other perceived internal issues will hurt UCLA's chances. It's also critical that the team projects a good chemistry, and that the players are buying into Howland's objectives. And it just can't be a matter of it looking like that's the case. Holmes is a smart, perceptive guy who does his homework. It's essential that all of the issues are legitimately resolved by season's end, or April, when Muhammad signs his NLI. Even if UCLA does genuinely do this, you have to consider that some of what has happened already this season has to have gone in the "con" column. The game Monday night against Pepperdine, in which Howland gave playing time to the guys who are playing hard and buying-in is perhaps the best thing Howland can do in terms of allaying any concerns from Muhammad's camp.
If Muhammad didn't come to UCLA, what would Kyle Anderson do? Admittedly, we have no hard information on this, and are far less tied-in to Anderson's recruitment. But we know that Anderson committing to UCLA was greatly contingent on his friend Muhammad coming to UCLA. We'd have to think that, if Muhammad decided he wasn't coming to UCLA, it would throw a considerable wrench into Anderson's situation. We wouldn't rule out that Anderson could ask the school to be released from his NLI. Again, we have no real evidence of this, and are only speculating. But given what we know about recruiting, and this specific recruiting situation, we have to entertain the notion as a possibility.
In terms of the implications on how this all impacts Howland's status at UCLA, it's clear that it definitely would. If the worst-case screnario transpired, on the season and in recruiting, it would be a devastating blow to the well-being and long-term prospects of Howland's program. The next question we have gotten repeatedly on the BRO message boards since the beginning of this season: In the worst-case scenario, would UCLA consider firing Howland after this season? From what we know, we'd have to say that Howland has far too much credit in the bank, so to speak, at UCLA, for it to be realistically considered at the end of this season. But, also, no one can anticipate other, unforeseen developments.
Given some of the difference scenarios, the choices of Muhammad and/or Anderson could work as either an elixir or a potential coup de grace. Let's say that the team ends the season in that mediocre range – anywhere from 14 to 18 wins – and doesn't win the Pac-12 Tournament, and therefore doesn't go to the NCAA Tournament. If, given that result, Muhammad and/or Anderson don't come to UCLA, it would be a severe piling on, one that makes it difficult for the program to overcome. But, also hypothesizing, let's say Howland stabilizes the program, to the point there doesn't appear to be any internal issues, and the players are buying in. There's a good chance that, given this won/loss scenario, and Muhammad and Anderson come to UCLA, it would definitely be a tonic for the program and give Howland more figurative credit in the bank. In other words, Muhammad and Anderson very well might hold a great deal of Howland's fate in their teenage hands.
One Last Scenario
While this has been a contemplation of the realistic scenarios, we haven't considered the improbable scenario. While it's unlikely, it's not impossible that this team puts it together to the point that it goes on a huge run for a majority of the remainder of the season. What makes it not impossible is, again, how bad the Pac-12 is. There isn't a game on UCLA's schedule that, even given how the team has played thus far, you would say isn't winnable. UCLA has enough talent that if it worked through its issues it could sweep through the conference and end up with an overall record of something like 22-8. If it did that it could have a good chance at getting an NCAA Tournament bid, winning the conference championship outright, or being good enough by March to win the Pac-12 Tournament. That would, first, demand stability and a buying-in within the program, so such a potential season would require inherently some of the elements that would bolster UCLA's recruiting.
Again, it's entirely possible. UCLA had some similar issues last season when it began the season 3-4. But it won its next six games in a row, and then 16 of its next 19, and it did so by improvement, adjustments and a more predominant team-wide buying-in (especially defensively). It was one of Howland's better coaching achievements.
We'll see if this year's Bruins are capable of it.