UCLA duo determined to turn it around
LOS ANGELES -- Jerime Anderson prepared himself for the worst.
It was only in 2008 when the now-embattled UCLA point guard was one of five top-50 players to arrive in Westwood. Fresh off a third consecutive Final Four appearance, coach Ben Howland stocked the cupboard with a recruiting class that ESPN.com ranked as the nation's best.
Two years later, a Bruins team that went 14-18 and endured only the third losing season at the school since 1948 needed -- and got -- a makeover. Howland ushered sophomores Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan out of the program, and not quite knowing where he stood, Anderson considered transferring as well.
Nevertheless, he went into an individual meeting armed with a promise of a renewed commitment to getting better following a season marred by inconsistency and injury. But Howland didn't want to hear it.
"Words are cheap," he said, demanding Anderson to back it up with actions.
"It wasn't like he told me, 'You're going to be on the end of the bench next year,'" Anderson said. "It was, 'You still have an opportunity, but you just have to show me you've changed and have a different work ethic.'
"I accept that. I only need one chance, and now I'm about to put the work in to be that player."
Living up to the lofty expectations of instant stardom has proved far more difficult for a former top-ranked recruiting class that has dwindled down to Anderson and backcourt mate Malcolm Lee. Howland, who was quick to note that such expectations were media-driven and not his own, did concede that some missteps were made while evaluating the class.
He clashed with the talented Gordon and called it a case of "a blown evaluation not in terms of his ability as a player, but in terms of things off the floor," declining to elaborate on the 6-foot-9 forward who averaged 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds before parting ways with the team in December. He landed at New Mexico.
Howland called Morgan, who was recruited late after being released from his signed letter of intent with LSU, "a big disappointment" after the 6-foot-10 center dealt with knee surgeries, played sparingly and was ultimately dismissed from the team shortly after the season. He landed at Baylor.
But even with UCLA banking on the development of younger players like Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson -- along with the arrivals of top recruits Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb -- in order to have a bounce-back season, it's certainly not too late for Anderson and Lee to make a meaningful impact on a team that is suddenly without a senior (graduating junior guard Mustafa Abdul-Hamid will not return).
Howland is especially excited about Lee. The '08 recruiting class has already produced one NBA player in point guard Jrue Holiday, who was drafted in the first round after his freshman season, and Howland is confident that Lee will be the second to make it.
A slender 6-4 combo guard, Lee's 12.1 points per game in 2009-10 were second on the Bruins. In the coming season, Howland expects that number to increase, as Lee has already begun putting on pounds and perfecting his shooting mechanics this spring in preparation for his new role as the focal point of the offense.
Scheduling sessions with Howland to establish a higher release point and consistent follow-through should help Lee improve on a .252 shooting percentage from 3-point range. And dragging teammates along with him to midnight shootarounds at Pauley Pavilion help establish his role as a team leader.
"Coming in as the No. 1 class, we had high expectations for ourselves," Lee said. "We're carrying a lot of tradition. The four letters on our jerseys hold a lot of weight."
Anderson, meanwhile, has much to prove after admittedly not working as hard as he could have last offseason. Consequently, he lost his starting job along with his confidence while his aggressiveness and decision-making ability suffered.
One particularly ulcer-inducing moment occurred on the road against cross-town rival USC when Anderson got stripped while in the act of bringing the ball up the floor and calling a play. Marcus Johnson's steal and game-sealing dunk prompted a flurry of text messages to Anderson's cell phone wondering, "What is wrong with you?"
"If he really is mentally tough and comes back with the right frame of mind that he wants to prove that he's a lot better than that, he'll have a chance to do just that," Howland said.
However, there appears to be enough doubt about Anderson's ability to start at point guard that Howland brought in the rare junior college transfer to UCLA in Lazeric Jones, who is expected to make an immediate impact at the position. The Bruins also have a verbal commitment from Matt Carlino, who was encouraged to graduate a year early and could also battle for minutes at the point.
Anderson had heard UCLA was bringing in competition for him, and with some close friends no longer on the team, he said thoughts of transferring crossed his mind. After a long talk with his parents about it, however, he realized he wanted to stay.
It helped that Howland had not completely lost hope in him.
"There was no discussion of, 'We're going to take away your scholarship,' nothing like that," Anderson said. "I was glad that I was still wanted here. I just want to honor that. Slowly, I'll earn his trust back."
Lee could have left as well, choosing to bolt for the NBA rather than dedicate himself to helping a team in rebuilding mode. He might have cited frustrations while filling in for an injured Anderson at point guard, a position that seemed to make him play too timidly.
But Lee said he did not consider ending his college career. The low point for him, after all, came during a home game against USC that saw the Trojans blow out the Bruins by 21 points with 99-year-old John Wooden in attendance -- a scene Lee described as "sad and disgusting."
Having his legacy be one of losing was simply not an option.
"I definitely wasn't leaving on this note," Lee said. "You can't leave UCLA like that. That's crazy."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.