Shabazz Muhammad and UCLA came into this season with sky-high expectations. The Bruins not only nabbed the best recruit in Muhammad, but added other high-profile freshmen in Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. UCLA had title hopes.
Then reality came crashing down as UCLA started by going 5-3 in their first eight games, and Muhammad looked slow and overweight. This was not what UCLA had in mind.
But things have certainly changed a bit. UCLA is now 9-3 and the freshmen are starting to live up to expectations. Adams is averaging 18 points a game, while Anderson is the team's top rebounder.
Still, if UCLA is to become a title contender, it will be on Muhammad to lead the way. There are some encouraging signs.
In the last three games, Muhammad is averaging 24.3 PPG, while shooting 26-for-47 from the field (55 percent) and 50 percent from downtown.
In addition, Muhammad is starting to lose some of the weight that plagued him in the early season. He got up to 230 pounds at the beginning of the season, 15 more than his high school weight. He said he lost 10 pounds in recent weeks. For Muhammad, the weight was really limiting him:
"I was really out of shape." "I'm really getting up and showing my explosive ability that I had all along."
Muhammad says he plans to lose five more pounds. So is he back? Three games does not a season make. However, now that he's adjusted to the college game, and has his weight under control, Muhammad is ready. Muhammad will finally, truly break out in Friday's clash against the seventh-ranked Missouri Tigers.
Why Missouri? While they are a terrific team, they have not seen a scorer like Muhammad. Keion Bell, who will have the task of guarding Muhammad, is a nice player, but he has not faced someone as talented as he will when he takes on the Bruins. When the Tigers took on Louisville, ranked third in the AP poll, they lost by more than 20 points. And there is no one on Louisville with as much natural talent as Muhammad.
Additionally, point guard Larry Drew II is having a terrific season. He's averaging 8.5 assists per game, while only turning the ball over 19 times in 12 games. The UNC transfer is taking to California life quite well.
He and Muhammad are beginning to develop chemistry and they'll be able to execute the dribble-drive game to perfection. Muhammad is starting to find his shooting stroke, and as the defense collapses on a penetrating Drew, Muhammad will be open for a shot from long-distance.
The team as a whole has really come together in the last three games, as the talented freshmen being to get their legs under them. Missouri is a good team, and they are the best rebounding team in the nation.
But Muhammad is beginning to show why he was the most highly-sought after recruit in the country. He can beat in you so many different ways. He's begun to ramp up his production and it will be against Missouri that he finally breaks out of his timid freshman shell and begins to dominate like the beast that we all know he is.