Among the biggest headlines in college basketball is the reinstatement of the country's most heralded freshman, UCLA wing Shabazz Muhammad. After being held out for the early part of the season, the NCAA has now deemed Muhammad eligible to resume playing for Ben Howland and the Bruins.
Obviously this has a major impact in Westwood, but how does the ripple effect carry over to Arizona? Counterintuitively, the Wildcats' biggest rival getting their star player back is actually a huge boon for Sean Miller's squad.
First of all, let's not mince words about Muhammad. He's not good. He's not even great. He's phenomenal
. Say what you will about Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, but Muhammad is the top player in the class of 2012 and he might be on a tier of his own.
He's a complete offensive player with the ideal body and a killer instinct. No matter what happens on the court this year, even if UCLA flounders and Muhammad never quite gets his sea legs, he'll be in the green room for the 2013 NBA Draft. So yeah, he's pretty good.
That's why Bruin nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when news broke that Muhammad was back in the fold, and that's why Arizona fans should have been pleased as well. Any astute Wildcat fan knows that a strong UCLA is good for the conference's national perception and clout, but there's a much nittier, grittier, reason that Arizona fans should be applauding Muhammad's return to the court: conference RPI.
Last year the Pac-12 rated a miserable 9th in the country in terms of conference RPI, behind the Missouri Valley Conference, the Atlantic 10, and well behind the Mountain West, while edging Conference USA by the slimmest of margins. And as we found out on Selection Sunday, NCAA Tournament bids were hard to come by for the Pac largely due to the conference's bubble teams being weighed down by less than mediocre conference RPI numbers.
Muhammad won't buoy the conference's RPI by himself. But he will keep UCLA strong (or stronger
), and that gives Arizona at least 2 more shots at resume building wins heading into tourney time. There currently isn't another conference foe that offers the same luxury, with the jury still out on Colorado after their upset of #16 Baylor.
The Wildcats take on Florida in McKale and face off with potential tournament teams at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, but otherwise the schedule is lacking in marquee matchups that could swing the selection committee in Arizona's favor when it comes down to seeding. So even if Arizona takes care of business against Florida and in Hawaii, their body of work may still not be enough to stand up to the nation's best. Unless they can get a quality win or two against a nationally respected UCLA team, that is.
No matter your opinions on Muhammad, the bottom line is that he's a rare talent that is a blessing for west coast basketball. He obviously breathes life into a dormant UCLA program, but he also bolsters the talent level of a conference trying to reclaim its spot among the country's elite. And for Arizona fans, hope Muhammad lives up to the hype. Hope he leads the Bruins to an undefeated season, games against the Cats excepted. Because if he can if come close to that, it'll be all the sweeter when the Wildcats are beating the Bruins on national TV.