Ben Howland and UCLA wait on the NCAA, and for the smoke to clear

UCLA basketball is in limbo until NCAA rules on eligibility of freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson. And a program that needs a lift remains under a cloud.

I'm watching Kansas basketball players dancing across their court Gangnam Style. I'm watching Tom Izzo marching across his Michigan State court dressed like Iron Man. From all corners of the country, I'm hearing of screeches and laughs while feeling the joyful warmth that accompanies the start of college basketball practice.

Yet, just down the street, amid the greatest buzz for a UCLA season in many years, the silence is chilling.

Instead of players running giddily into the new season through theatrical billows of smoke, it is the team that remains stuck in a dark cloud.

The two top freshmen in one of the nation's top recruiting classes have not yet been cleared for regular-season competition by the NCAA, leaving Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson in limbo. The team's media day was monitored by the school's vice chancellor for legal affairs — never a good sign — and the sort of one-on-one interviews that give the program important exposure were banned. In a recent online poll of nearly 100 coaches, UCLA's Ben Howland was voted as college basketball's third-biggest cheater even though he has never been involved in anything remotely associated with scandal.

Hey, can't wait for the opening of new Pauley Pavilion, huh?

UCLA doesn't need this. The school needs to sell pricey seats at its $136-million refurbished arena while gaining good national vibes from several at-long-last appearances on ESPN.

Howland doesn't need this. He not only needs to win big to extend a UCLA tenure that could end after this season, but he needs to do it within rules that he has always seemed to follow.

And of course, the kids don't need this. Although the freshmen are forbidden from answering media questions about the uncertainty, they are surely bombarded by those questions from their UCLA classmates, and must wonder about those questions while enduring Howland's difficult practices. It's probably hard to buy into a new school and new program if you're not sure the NCAA will allow you or your teammates to stay.

"Of course people are frustrated because the process takes time," Howland said Tuesday. "But our position all along is to be as cooperative as possible, to do everything the NCAA has asked us to do."

It's a shame that Howland's first answers in his most important UCLA season had to contain the letters "NCAA." It's distracting that the cooperation being discussed is not between the point guard and small forward, but between the school and the sports police.

I wish I were writing this column about the impending thrill of watching the smooth Anderson and the swaggering Muhammad joining with other freshmen Tony Parker and Jordan Adams to take the Bruins back to the Final Four. But the only number that matters right now to UCLA is 45, the number of days both players are eligible to practice while the NCAA investigates whether they are actually professionals. While Anderson's clock has been ticking, Muhammad did not accompany the team on its recent trip to China so his 45-day window could start last week.

It's important to note that, to the best of my knowledge, UCLA is not under investigation. It is only the players who are being investigated, the NCAA checking for possible benefits received from agents and friends and travel-team flunkies while the kids were still in high school.

So far, there is zero evidence that the Bruins did anything wrong here. It just seems that way, and that's the worst part of it.

The perception among some is that, desperate to fix a program that missed the NCAA tournament two of the last three seasons, desperate to open new Pauley with a roar, the Bruins decided to cut corners to get better quicker.

Some folks just don't believe that four top players would forsake the Kentuckys and North Carolinas to attend a school with a tough coach and an aging legacy that many young athletes have forgotten. After Howland made several recruiting mistakes in recent years, these stars seemed to parachute into Westwood out of nowhere, and folks wonder why. It doesn't help that one of Howland's top recruiters is a former AAU big shot from Atlanta named Korey McCray.

"UCLA will always be involved with great players, and those players always draw scrutiny," Howland said. "That's just the way it is."

He's right. I'd rather have UCLA chase those big stars and endure the NCAA microscope than settle for the mediocre acquisitions who never are noticed. I'd like to believe UCLA still means something to young stars, and I'd like to believe Howland has put enough players in the NBA that he still means something to them too.

"I am so excited about this team, and these kids are so excited about each other," Howland said. "I can't wait for you to see them."

I'd like to see them. I hope we can all eventually see them. I'd like to think UCLA is doing everything right. For the sake of the future of the entire athletic department, I'm hoping they are.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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