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Basketball Insider: UCLA trending in right direction

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

First, it appeared that UCLA coach Ben Howland was in trouble. Losing to Cal Poly at Pauley Pavilion wasn't the half of it, but it's funny how quickly things can change.

After winning 10 in a row and their first five games to open Pac-12 play, the Bruins are ranked in the Top 25 after the first of the year for the first time since 2009.

The No. 24 Bruins (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) lost to No. 21 Oregon, 76-67, on Saturday, but it's clear Howland didn't forget how to coach. After all, the former Pitt coach guided UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours.

Major college basketball runs in cycles, what with one-and-done players annually leaving for the NBA and the disparity in talent between majors and mid-majors ever decreasing.

UCLA's turnaround has little to do with Howland's coaching ability and more to do with his ability to recruit elite talent to Westwood (see: Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo).

Introducing freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who has adjusted to college basketball in a major way.

The top recruit in America, Muhammad was sidelined nine weeks this summer with an ankle injury. The NCAA then sidelined Muhammad for three games after determining he had committed a violation of amateurism rules.

You get only one chance to make a first impression, so Muhammad's introduction to college basketball wasn't the smoothest. But he's making up for lost time.

Boasting a confident all-purpose game, Muhammad leads UCLA in scoring and 3-point shooting, and he's third on the team in rebounding.

“No question, Shabazz has been a key factor in us playing well,” Howland said during his weekly conference call. “He's had some tough injuries since he got here. The whole stress of going through the NCAA thing really wore on him. Since he's been back, getting in great physical condition definitely is helping him.”

Without Muhammad, the Bruins struggled offensively while searching for their go-to scorer who was sitting on the bench in street clothes.

Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins saw firsthand how dangerous UCLA can be when Muhammad scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half of a 68-60 win over his team on Jan. 5.

“They're a good team and they're going to continue to continue to get better,” Dawkins said. “I think they're as talented as anyone.”

With Muhammad in the lineup, UCLA won its first two conference road games for the first time in four years. Muhammad's magic touch could ensure UCLA's return to the NCAAs after missing the tournament two of the last three seasons.

Mid-major glory

It's been a surprisingly good year for mid-majors in the national polls. Gonzaga (No. 8), Creighton (No. 12), Butler (No. 13) and San Diego State (No. 15) all cracked the top 20 last week.

Only please don't call them mid-majors.

“The first thing I do is challenge you to come and watch us play in front of 18,000 people and then call us a mid-major,'' Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “We're as far away from a mid-major as you can find.”

Creighton is the first team in the nation to win 17 games this season. The Bluejays averaged 16,952 fans in their first 11 home games. That includes four consecutive home sellouts since the beginning of the Missouri Valley Conference schedule.

Responding to a question on his weekly conference call, an agitated McDermott challenged reporters to compare Creighton and Gonzaga to BCS schools.

“When you look at Gonzaga's environment and the players they have on the floor, I would venture to say that coach (Mark) Few would feel the same,” said McDermott, whose son, Doug, is Creighton's best player and a national player of the year candidate.

“Nobody's unbeaten anymore and you're 16-17 games in,” McDermott continued. “That's college basketball. There's a lot of parity. The teams that can continue to plug along and not get many losses are going to be rewarded in the polls.”

Around the country

How big an impact has the Big East made on college basketball? Louisville's No. 1 ranking this week marks the 65th time a Big East team has been the top-ranked team in The Associated Press poll. Additionally, the Big East is the No. 2 rated conference in the most current RPI Report update. The Big East's Division I nonconference record of 177-60 (.746) is the best of any of the 32 conferences. ... Texas coach Rick Barnes' youth movement may be noble — the Longhorns feature four sophomores and six freshmen who are averaging at least 11 minutes a game — but it could result in missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. It hasn't helped that sophomore guard and best player Myck Kabongo was suspended by the NCAA for the first 23 games of the season for receiving illegal benefits and misleading officials during the investigation. ... And you thought Big 12 football was tough on its newcomers: First-year members West Virginia and TCU have combined for one win in their first eight league basketball games. ... Unranked Wisconsin was the only undefeated Big 10 team after four league games. The Badgers defeated No. 2 Indiana, 62-59, on Tuesday. It was their 11th consecutive win over Indiana and their fifth straight win in Bloomington.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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