As the UCLA basketball team gathered at Pauley Pavilion for a recent workout, Malcolm Lee looked from player to player, trying to single out a preordained leader.
"Could be anybody," the sophomore guard said. "We're basically starting from the ground up."
Well, it might seem like that for the Bruins, but as official practice for the 2009-10 college basketball season begins Friday, USC is the team in town that is really starting over.
UCLA lost four of five starters from last season, with seniors Alfred Aboya, Josh Shipp and Darren Collison moving on and freshman Jrue Holiday jumping early to the NBA. But USC also has only one starter back, its three best players having left school early. Plus, the Trojans have a new coach, Kevin O'Neill, and an almost entirely new recruiting class after several top prospects left in the wake of former coach Tim Floyd's resignation. Early projections have the Bruins near the bottom of the national top 25 at best, chasing California and Washington for the Pacific 10 Conference title. USC is expected to chase just about everyone.
A look at each team's five most pressing issues as they begin practice:
Who's the boss?
After three seasons with Collison in the starting lineup, the door swings open for Jerime Anderson at point guard.
Anderson expected to be a factor last season but got boxed out by Collison's decision to remain in school one more year. As a result, he played only 8.6 minutes a game.
The sophomore is eager to make up for lost time. "I definitely know how to run a team," he said. "This year, I'm going to be allowed to do that."
Players often show their most dramatic improvement in the summer after their freshman season. That seems to be the case with Lee, who could be a breakout star this winter.
Expected to start at shooting guard and back up Anderson at the point, he has impressed coaches and teammates the last few months.
At least one online publication projects him as an all-conference first-teamer.
"He's our best defensive player," Howland said. "He's really worked hard to get stronger and he's improved his shooting."
Center of attention
As the heart of last season's team, Aboya brought grit and tenacity to the middle.
"It's a very tough thing to match," Howland said. "Especially on the defensive end of the floor where he made up for other people's mistakes because he drew so many charges."
Sophomores Drew Gordon and J'mison Morgan will compete to replace him, along with senior James Keefe, who started at power forward for part of last season. Freshman Anthony Stover is in the mix.
Injuries hit Keefe (shoulder) and Gordon (knee) this summer; both are working to get back to full strength. Morgan, looking trim after an out-of-shape freshman year, still has much to prove.
From long range
Senior guard Michael Roll led the Pac-10 by shooting 51.5% from three-point range last season. Nikola Dragovic, a senior forward and the only returning starter, wasn't as accurate but led the team with 60 long-range baskets.
Roll, who has been lighting it up in summer games, said: "I shot the three so well last year, teams are going to be looking for that. I've been working on my mid-range game and my moves, getting to the basket."
The new guys
The Bruins wrangled another impressive recruiting class, with forwards Mike Moser and Reeves Nelson drawing early praise.
"It's like trying to stop a bull," Roll said of the 225-pound Nelson.
Tyler Honeycutt, cleared to play after a spinal stress fracture, will fight for time at forward along with Brendan Lane.
Howland could use contributions from the youngsters right away, but in a season of transition -- if not outright rebuilding -- he warned: "We have to be patient."
-- David Wharton