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Such an exodus would decimate most programs. But this was UCLA, and the Bruins reloaded with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. The 2008 Baby Bruins consisted of three combo guards—Holiday, Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson—power forward Drew Gordon and center J'mison Morgan. Holiday was the highest-ranked recruit (No. 2 overall), but all were among the nation's top 50 prospects, a distinction not even Michigan's famed Fab Five class of 1991 could claim.
Howland had never signed a group so talented and so widely expected to succeed. Holiday was called a more polished version of Westbrook; Gordon was touted as a better athlete than Love; Morgan was likened to former alltime great UCLA centers Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.
The recruits were famous before they played a game. They would walk into a party on campus and, as one player put it, "the place would just stop."
When practices began in October, however, it was quickly apparent that while the Baby Bruins' talent was undeniable, their levels of dedication varied. Some of the newcomers clearly didn't appreciate the commitment needed to succeed at the top level of the college game.
The seven team members from that year who spoke to SI divided the freshmen into two camps. Holiday and Lee were serious and professional; they had fun off the court but never went too far. Anderson, Gordon and Morgan, by contrast, took advantage of the freedom of being in college and did what many freshmen do. They partied. The trio regularly drank alcohol and smoked marijuana, sometimes before practice, according to multiple teammates. The three players' limited time on the court—Gordon played the most, averaging just under 11 minutes a game—seemed to give them license to do more partying as the season progressed. (Anderson, Gordon and Morgan declined to comment.)
Several former team members who spoke to SI cautioned against demonizing the misbehaving freshmen. "We all partied when we first went to college," one says. But while asking for some perspective on the freshmen's behavior, former players said their actions affected the team's unity and performance. Practices were often sloppy because of the three freshmen's immaturity and lack of effort, and some of the Baby Bruins chafed at being treated as anything but the stars they were coming out of high school.
Older players tried to counsel them but with little success. Gordon, for one, was very emotional and reacted harshly whenever criticized, several former teammates say. He often disrupted practices and during one session set an illegal screen on Collison that so angered Collison that the two had to be separated.
Gordon was not punished for that incident, one of many occasions when Howland didn't discipline the freshmen for conduct that was detrimental to the team. One player sensed that Howland was waiting for things to work themselves out; others say they felt that Howland was reluctant to discipline the freshmen out of trepidation that the best of them would transfer or leave early for the NBA. (Citing federal privacy laws, a university spokesperson said Howland would not discuss his handling of specific players with SI.)
At one point in late 2008, Howland lectured the team about drinking, saying that he didn't consume alcohol during the season and asking that the players show the same respect for the program. Reminders to curtail the partying came more frequently from assistant coaches.
On the final day of 2008, Howland met with the team and told players not to go out on New Year's Eve. The Bruins had an early-morning practice scheduled for New Year's Day and were departing for Oregon in the afternoon. Howland stressed that it was time to get serious.