Have someone who doesn’t follow basketball take a look at the UCLA team photo, and dare them to find the freshmen.
Their eyes sure aren’t going to light on the massive shoulders of Dutch-born Dan Gadzuric, who is 20.
They might not pick out Jerome Moiso, either. The tall and slender center from France and the West Indies is 20 too.
JaRon Rush? He’s 19, and just might end up the Bruins’ leading scorer this season.
Fact is, the only 18-year-olds in the nation’s top-rated recruiting class are Matt Barnes and Ray Young, and even Young is accidentally listed as 20 on one roster.
Let’s get right down to it: This is a fabulous freshman class with an asterisk.
Sophomores Earl Watson and Baron Davis--who was born the day after Rush in 1979--are still youngsters by comparison.
“They’re a great group,” Watson said. “Some of them are my age. And some of them are older.”
Young, one of three McDonald’s All-Americans among the freshmen, can see the difference between himself and some of the others.
“You can kind of tell by their maturity and poise,” he said. “You definitely can see they’re a little more experienced-type players.”
The talk is going to be of Michigan’s Fab Five, the baggy-shorts bunch led by Chris Webber that reached the NCAA title game as freshmen and sophomores but never won, along with the Duke freshman class of last season that contributed to a No. 1 ranking.
There are no predictions quite so lofty for UCLA right now, with a talented bunch that is going to take time to settle into a team.
As for the Fab Five, the truth is, there is much more daunting precedent tucked into the pages of UCLA history.
How about this crew? Lew Alcindor, Lucius Allen, Kenny Heitz and Lynn Shackelford came to Westwood in the fall of 1965, at a time when freshmen were ineligible under NCAA rules. All they did, of course, was win the NCAA title every year they played.
Even last year’s seniors accomplished something hard to fathom this year’s crew could do: J.R. Henderson, Toby Bailey and Kris Johnson were part of a 1995 NCAA championship as freshmen.
“This is a new team,” said Gadzuric, a 6-10, 245-pound center who will be one three likely freshman starters tonight against Santa Clara in the season opener. The Bruins have 12 freshmen and sophomores among their 14 players. “It will take longer for us to know our abilities and how to play with each other.”
Like the Duke freshmen last season--Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Chris Burgess and William Avery--the new Bruins would just as soon make their own way and not talk about the Michigan teams that lost to Duke and North Carolina in NCAA championship games before the defections to the NBA began.
“We’re not the Fab Five,” said Barnes, a swingman from Sacramento. “We’re the UCLA freshman class.”
“Nobody likes nicknames,” Rush said. “We want to be recognized as a team that can play. We want to see if we can do something like that--spectacular.”
Said Moiso: “I read some articles about the Fab Five. They had their own style. We have to develop our own style and be successful.”
Young: “We’re a different class, different people, a different team. We’ll try to pave our own way.”
Gadzuric will lay some of the asphalt. Born and raised in Holland, he attended Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass.
Not only was he a McDonald’s All-American, along with Rush and Young, he was considered a possible lottery pick if he decided to jump straight to the NBA.
At UCLA, he gives the Bruins a muscular presence in the middle they haven’t had in years.
“I just came to improve as a player,” Gadzuric said. “This will help me with my maturity so I won’t make bad mistakes like when I was younger.”
Rush might do more for UCLA than any of the newcomers this season. He’s a 6-6 swingman who is a scorer and slasher and averaged 32 points a game as a senior at Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City. He’s ultra quick and can shoot, and most of what Coach Steve Lavin worries about is defense.
Still, Rush exhibits an eagerness to do the little things that is rare in so fussed-over a freshman. He has a nose for a loose ball and an eye for the open man underneath.
He also has the advantage of being a Kansas City buddy of Watson--they played on the same AAU team--and Watson has the team on his young shoulders.
“‘Earl, he’s like a senior leader on the floor, yelling and telling us what to do,” Rush said. “Knowing Earl, it helps me a lot. I’m confident because I can look at him and he can look at me and we understand each other. It’s really nice to have him on the team.”
Moiso, who has played extensively for the French national teams, attended Milford Academy in Connecticut last year but played in only a few games. He’s an interesting case, a 6-11 center/forward who seems all finesse at first but is capable of some lightning-quick left-handed dunks.
“He takes his time and looks around, just analyzing, and then does his thing,” Gadzuric said.
With a soft shooting touch and nice vision as a high-post passer, he gives UCLA a completely different look than Gadzuric, whether they’re in the game together or separately.
He also has one very clear role on the team: He’s the guy who does radio interviews in French and receives interview requests from Le Monde.
Barnes, who at 6-7 can play every position, a la Henderson, was the first of the freshmen to sign with UCLA. A football player at Del Campo High in Sacramento, he led the nation with 28 touchdown catches last season. His basketball season was quieter, after he sat out half of it because of a foot injury that required surgery, but he has been one of the more unexpected standouts for UCLA.
“‘People see him as a throw-in,” Lavin said. “ ‘You got a football player from Sacramento, what’s his name?’ We liken him to J.R., Scottie Pippen, a scaled-down Danny Manning. He’s very heady. He has a high basketball IQ.”
Young, a 6-3 guard from St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda--Jason Kidd’s high school--played in the McDonald’s game with Rush and Gadzuric, but has been slower to come along in the preseason.
“It’s a big transition, but day by day, I’m making progress,” he said.
Like Barnes, he was one of the early members of the class to pick UCLA and watched the others follow.
“It got a little more exciting every time you heard a different name,” he said.
With all those big names, it would seem like a challenge to keep the egos in line, but on first impression these players seem well adjusted enough to avoid that.
“What we’ve talked about is staying hungry and humble each day,” Lavin said. “Yes, they have press clippings. Yes, they’re McDonald’s All-Americans. It doesn’t mean anything today. It’s about growing and staying hungry and humble.
“You can’t lose your humility if you’re going to continue to grow as individuals and a team.”
It is a different sort of team, with only one senior, Brandon Loyd, and one junior, Sean Farnham.
“One thing I think this group has going for them is they’re from a lot of different places,” Lavin said, thinking of the assortment of Europeans with eastern ties, a Midwesterner and two Northern Californians.
“I can’t exactly articulate why that’s a positive, but the fact that they’re from different places brings them together. They share the commonality of being away from home.
“‘Carrying bags for the seniors, the freshmen being like plebes, this team doesn’t do that.”
No, that would be a lot of people to carry Loyd’s bags. What UCLA has is a team on which the sophomores are leading the freshmen.
“The adjustment is not easy,” Watson said. “You have to stay focused 40 minutes. You can’t let up for five, or your lead can go like that.”
Davis, a whirling dervish a year ago, knows he’ll be asked to follow Watson’s lead as sophomore statesman as he returns from his knee injury.
“It’s real weird,” Davis said. “Being freshmen last year, we were allowed to make mistakes and not held as accountable.
“Now we have to be held accountable for everything.”