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COLLEGE BASKETBALL : UCLA's Anderson is being watched : Point guard knows it's riding on him to stay healthy and run the offense as Bruins begin an uncertain journey.

November 16, 2009|David Wharton

Talk to the young man about pressure and he smiles.

"What's life without pressure?" he says.

Tell him that everyone is watching, waiting to see whether he screws up.

"I've noticed," he says.

Jerime Anderson understands that as UCLA's new point guard, he not only controls the offense but also serves as the linchpin for a defense that has traditionally relied upon pressuring the ball.

More than any other player on the roster, Anderson holds the key to the Bruins' season. As California Coach Mike Montgomery, watching from up the coast, put it: "Are they going to have that veteran leadership?"

The answer rests with an unproven sophomore guiding a team full of question marks, their uncertain journey beginning with tonight's opener against Cal State Fullerton at Pauley Pavilion.

"I know there's going to be a lot of pressure coming to my position," Anderson said. "It's not something that I take lightly."

For the first time in a long while, UCLA has been left out of the top 25, picked to finish a pedestrian third in the Pacific 10 Conference.

To surpass those expectations, the Bruins will need seniors Nikola Dragovic and Michael Roll to provide a more-consistent scoring punch, and senior James Keefe to work harder on the boards.

Sophomores Malcolm Lee and Drew Gordon must step up after playing spot roles last season. A highly touted freshman class has loads of potential but zero experience.

The early schedule won't offer many breaks, not with a tough 76 Classic tournament leading into games against top-ranked Kansas and Mississippi State.

"Obviously, it's different than we're used to at UCLA," Keefe said. "We're going to have to fight every game."

Which puts the onus on the new floor leader, a young man who has already endured a few bumps in the road.

The Bruins recruited Anderson from Canyon High in Anaheim Hills as a relentless defender who averaged five steals, a ballhandler who could take control of the offense.

It was the spring of 2008 and most people expected junior Darren Collison to jump to the NBA, leaving Anderson to play significant minutes on a highly ranked team. But Collison opted to stay put.

"I was like, damn," Anderson recalled. "I was a little hurt."

Suddenly the odd man out, he did his best to stay patient, averaging about two points and an assist in eight minutes a game. Too often, he pressed on court.

"I thought I had to make plays all the time," he said. "You don't have to do that."

Collison graduated in the spring, but there was still a good deal of suspense in the backcourt, the much-hyped Jrue Holiday wanting to switch from off-guard to the point.

This time, Anderson wasn't overly concerned. He had shared the ball with Holiday on various AAU squads and, besides, there were indications his buddy might not stick around.

"He was my roommate and I didn't ever see him in the room," Anderson said. "I kind of put things together and figured he was going to try for the league."

When Holiday left for the NBA draft, Coach Ben Howland finally spoke the words that Anderson had been waiting to hear.

"Jerime is our only true point guard," Howland said. "It's his job to run the team."

There was plenty of work to do over the summer, a right elbow that tended to stray outward, causing Anderson to shoot a knuckleball. Soon enough, the elbow stayed put and his shot gained more rotation.

In pickup games at UCLA, former Bruin Russell Westbrook and other NBA players offered a few tricks of the trade.

"Little nuances," Anderson said. "Teaching me as we played."

His UCLA teammates saw enough to expect a change in the offense. Last season, Collison drew criticism for dribbling too much at the top of the key, waiting for the shot clock to run down, then working off a ball screen at the last moment.

"Jerime is a pass-first point guard," Roll said. "I think it's going to be more of a flow this year."

On the minus side, the new guy doesn't figure to be as quick or aggressive on defense, Howland saying: "Darren was the best I ever coached." And there is another issue.

Early in the preseason, Anderson aggravated a groin injury that had bothered him as a freshman.

He missed a string of practices and sat on the bench as UCLA looked ragged in a near-loss against Concordia.

Even after his return -- the offense running more smoothly in a victory over Humboldt State -- Anderson battled leg cramps, not yet in top shape. With only three true scholarship guards on the roster, the Bruins are operating on a razor's edge.

"There is so much riding on Jerime Anderson just being healthy," Howland said. "So, yeah, I'm concerned."

Again, Anderson dismisses such worries. After last season's disappointment, he insists nothing will keep him off the court.

"I'll be fine," he said.

Tonight brings the first test, facing Fullerton's Jacques Streeter, an all-freshman point guard in the Big West Conference last season.

Fans will be watching. Anderson knows that.

"I want to show that I can handle it," he said. "This is my time to step up."

--

david.wharton@latimes.com

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