Wednesday was so much more than just the first day of college basketball's spring signing period. With the nation's top two recruits -- Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel -- announcing where they intend to spend their likely one-and-done seasons, every 2012-13 projection hung in the balance. Muhammad surprised no one by committing to and signing with UCLA, while Noel kept Georgetown and Kentucky fans waiting before revealing a 'UK' symbol shaved into the back of his trademark flat-top.
Here are five quick thoughts on their commitments:
1. Is this recruiting class fool's gold for Ben Howland? UCLA coach Ben Howland needed this recruiting class desperately. After spending the last four seasons proving nothing more than his inability to build on the success of three straight Final Four trips from 2006-08, Howland watched as his second NIT-bound campaign in the last three years was punctuated by a story from Sports Illustrated that highlighted everything negative happening in the program. The notion that drew the most criticism was the accusation that Howland allowed Reeves Nelson to deliberately injure fellow team members without repercussion. As poorly as that reflects on the program, it looks even worse for Howland.
The fact that the ninth-year coach even managed to keep his job centered not only on his three consecutive Final Fours, but, perhaps more pressingly, on the idea that Howland could lure two of the top three national recruits in Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. If this class ends up being as good as advertised, it will breathe some life into the UCLA program and create some leeway from Howland's bosses -- particularly if he is able to fill up the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion.
The irony in all of this, however, is that Howland's troubles began when he started going after blue-chip prospects. From 2006-08, Howland sent seven players to the NBA. Five of them -- Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Aaron Afflalo, Russell Westbrook and Ryan Hollins -- were from Southern California. With the exception of Kevin Love, every other contributing member of his three Final Four teams was a native of either Cameroon (Luc Richard Mbah Moute and Alfred Aboya) or California. Howland's bread and butter was owning his backyard; his troubles began when he started branching out as the media in Los Angeles criticized him for not having enough talent to win a title.
Anderson is from New Jersey. Muhammad is from Las Vegas. Jordan Adams, who has already signed with UCLA, and Tony Parker, a big man that UCLA is targeting, are both from Georgia. Howland may have earned himself a stay of execution with this recruiting class, but is he just delaying the inevitable?
2. Adidas speculation aside, it's surprising that Kentucky didn't land both Muhammad and Noel. Shabazz Muhammad's AAU team is sponsored by Adidas. His sister, Asia, is a tennis player ranked just shy of 400th in the world. She's also sponsored by Adidas. UCLA is an Adidas school. Factor all that into consideration, and it's no wonder that every so-called recruiting expert figured that Muhammad was bound for UCLA a long time ago. That's just the way it works these days.
But to give you an idea of just how powerful John Calipari's program is, there is still a part of me that's surprised the Wildcats didn't land both Muhammad and Noel. At this point, Coach Cal barely even needs to make a pitch when he walks into the home of a recruit. The results speak for themselves: He rebuilds -- or reloads? -- every year, coaching his immensely talented players until they are highly sought after by the NBA. If you include Enes Kanter, Kentucky has had seven first-round draftees under Coach Cal and nine selections overall. The formula is simple: go to Kentucky, compete for a national title and declare for the NBA. This season, Kentucky may end up seeing its top six players get drafted after winning the NCAA championship. That's the dream, isn't it?
While Coach Cal did manage to bring in the more important piece -- Noel is a defensive game-changer of Anthony Davis' ilk; Muhammad plays the same position as some of UK's current recruits -- there is still an element of shock when a program of Kentucky's caliber doesn't woo the player it is trying to woo.
3. Is the Pac-12 is relevant again? Here's the simple answer: yes.
With Muhammad and Anderson now firmly in the fold, UCLA automatically becomes a legitimate threat to make a deep tournament run next March. Those two are that dangerous together, and already have experience on the same team from their time at the Nike Hoop Summit. That being said, success won't be a given, as the Bruins face some major question marks heading into next season. Can Kyle Anderson, at 6-foot-8, play the point at a high-major level or will UNC transfer Larry Drew be asked to play significant minutes? Will Joshua Smith finally get into shape? Where does UCLA's perimeter depth come from? Can the Wear twins live up to their high school reputations? The good news is that figuring out how to manage a talented roster is a significantly easier task than finding a way to disguise a mediocre one. UCLA should be contender next year.
But the Bruins aren't alone in the conference. Arizona will also bring in a loaded recruiting class headlined by center Kaleb Tarczewski, forward Grant Jerrett and wing Brandon Ashley. The Wildcats also face uncertainty -- Josiah Turner transferred, forcing Nick Johnson, Jordin Mayes or incoming freshman Gabe York to run the point -- but their big men may be good enough to make up for it. At the very worst, this year's most underwhelming conference should be very top heavy in 2012-13.
4. UCLA and Kentucky aren't done yet. This is the scariest part about what most people consider to be two of the nation's top three recruiting classes. UCLA is still in the running for a 6-foot-9 behemoth from Georgia, Tony Parker, a consensus top 30 recruit who could inspire Joshua Smith to get into shape by pushing him for minutes. Kentucky, on the other hand, has quite a bit of talent remaining on the board. In addition to Noel, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley -- all top 50 recruits -- Coach Cal is heavily pursuing Anthony Bennett, Amile Jefferson and Alex Oriakhi, a UConn transfer. The defending national champs could be another force in Lexington next year if...
5. Will either of these two ever step onto a college court? It's conceivable that they won't. Noel recently reclassified to the Tilton (N.H.) School class of 2012, meaning that he needs to finish his academic coursework a year earlier than expected. That accelerated schedule isn't buoyed by the fact that he played in the All-American Classic in New Orleans, the Hoop Summit in Oregon and the Jordan Classic in North Carolina over the past three weeks. He missed class time for all of those events, and he'll need to make it up.
Muhammad's issues are more typical of elite college basketball prospects these days. CBSSports.com reported that the NCAA was investigating his relationship with two financial advisors and that potential eligibility issues are involved. Stay tuned.