Posted by Jeff Borzello
Rankings of the top prospects in the country have different impacts on different players. Some don’t pay attention to them; some live and die by their ranking. Others are cognizant of where they stand and know opponents are gunning for them.
Shabazz Muhammad, one of the top three players in the class of 2012, is in the latter group.
“I think everyone thinks they’re the number one player, but I don’t worry about that,” Muhammad said in a phone interview. “But it affects the way I play, big-time. Having a target on my back, it’s a great opportunity for me.”
The 6-foot-5 swingman from Bishop Gorman (Nev.) has been ranked near the top of his class since he was a freshman in high school. Every game, camp or tournament, Muhammad has had to stand his ground to retain his stature.
Unlike many players who drop in the rankings as their high school careers progress, Muhammad is still in the mix for the top spot.
“That’s the first thing that comes to mind,” he said. “I’m the best player on the court and I have to prove it.”
Muhammad is a lefty scoring machine, using his strength to simply overpower most of his opponents when driving to the rim. He is an excellent finisher in the paint and is deadly in the mid-range. Once he improves his outside shooting, Muhammad could be unstoppable on the wing.
At the high school level, Muhammad can get away with playing inside the arc, but he knows he has to improve his guard skill set at the next level.
“Schools are recruiting me as a shooting guard,” he said. “So I’m working on handling the ball. Schools like Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, they have their shooting guards handle the ball a lot. And the most important thing is my perimeter shooting. The athleticism is already there.”
Muhammad has offers from dozens of schools, but he has trimmed some of the fat and is focusing on seven schools: Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, UNLV, Arizona, Kansas and Texas.
While he says he has no favorites, he did go through each school to discuss what he liked about each one.
Many people think UCLA is the frontrunner for Muhammad, but he denied it.
“It was a great experience,” he said about UCLA. “I’ve been to California and I love the weather. Coach [Ben] Howland is a great guy; I talked to him for a couple of hours. I got to see how it is to be a Bruin.”
Not surprisingly, Kentucky is also on Muhammad’s list. He said it’s different than the other schools on his list because of the location.
“I can be very focused there, since it’s not a city,” Muhammad said. “It’s a good place for a person who is serious about basketball. There are no distractions.”
UNLV is the closest school to Muhammad’s Las Vegas home and high school, and is therefore still in the mix. Proximity could play a factor.
“It’s a local school, and they have really good match-ups every year,” he said. “It’s only 10 minutes away.”
Early in May, Muhammad and his Dream Vision AAU team took a trip to the Jayhawk Invitational in Kansas. While there, he got a chance to check out the Kansas campus.
“Coach [Bill] Self is a nice guy,” Muhammad said. “I took a visit up there a couple weeks ago.”
What impressed Muhammad the most about Duke was head coach Mike Krzyzewski, but it wasn’t his charm or recruiting pitch that opened Muhammad’s eyes.
“Coach K, I talked to him a lot,” he said. “He’s very intellectual, he know what he’s doing. The guy is just smart. It’s a great place to be at.”
The most recent trip Muhammad took was to Arizona, ironically taking place the day after head coach Sean Miller spurned Maryland to stay in Tucson.
“I’ve been talking to them a lot,” Muhammad said. “They have a great coach and a great team. And their system is running, getting up and down.”
He plans on taking a trip to Texas sometime in June; at that point, Muhammad will have taken unofficial visits to all seven schools.
Still, no particular school is standing out.
“Everyone I named is coming at me the hardest,” Muhammad said. “They’re all great [coaches]. I can’t really compare one, two, three.”
Nearly every school on his list is a perennial Final Four contender, making Muhammad’s decision even harder. The main factor in his decision will be program success, both past and future.
“The school’s tradition,” Muhammad said. “I’m looking for the school that has the best opportunity for me to win a national championship.”
Despite going on plenty of unofficial visits and knowing exactly what he is looking for in a school, he has no plans to make a decision anytime soon.
Muhammad doesn’t want to rush into anything.
“I’m taking the process slowly. I probably will take all five of my visits,” he said. “I want to make sure I make the right choice.”
Photos: Wildcat Blue Nation, Lawrence Journal-World