Jaylen Clark conjures up defense-minded UCLA in NCAA event

Before he left the rostrum late Thursday night time, Mick Cronin saluted somebody a number of hundred miles away.

“Jaylen Clark,” Cronin mentioned, “we miss you, buddy.”

Yes, the UCLA Bruins definitely do.

Clark is their greatest defender, if not the nation’s greatest. He’s their emotional spark plug, following his takeaways resulting in straightforward baskets with a muscled flex and a mighty roar.

He has additionally grow to be a galvanizing power, even whereas resting his injured leg again in Southern California as his crew makes an attempt this March march with out him.

“I think we’re playing a lot for Jaylen this tournament,” senior ahead Jaime Jaquez Jr. mentioned after the second-seeded Bruins (30-5) simply dispatched North Carolina Asheville 86-53 within the first spherical of the NCAA event, establishing a second-round showdown in opposition to seventh-seeded Northwestern (22-11) on Saturday night time at Golden 1 Center.

His presence could be felt in each sideline entice, each deflected cross, each blocked shot that he conjures up. What may be the very best protection within the nation hasn’t skilled a drop-off since Clark limped to the sideline, by no means to return, in opposition to Arizona throughout UCLA’s remaining regular-season sport.

Actually, the Bruins have gotten higher, no less than analytically. They have given up a median of 59.8 factors within the 4 video games since Clark obtained harm, down from the 60.1 factors that they had allowed beforehand. Along the way in which, they moved up one place within the defensive effectivity metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, taking up the No. 1 spot nationally.

The Bruins’ Amari Bailey, left and Jaime Jaquez Jr. battle UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abee for a rebound Thursday night time.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Nobody does it higher as a result of everyone on this crew has stepped up. Jaquez stockpiled a career-high 5 steals in a single half. Amari Bailey clogged passing lanes. Tyger Campbell stripped balls. Kenneth Nwuba admirably manned the submit.

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“We’re not better without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin mentioned, stating the apparent in case anybody wanted to listen to it. “I think our intensity has gone up lately. That’s helped. I think Jaime has definitely taken his deflections, defense, trying to create more steals. He and Amari are definitely trying to make up for some of Jaylen Clark’s absence with their activity on the defensive end.”

UCLA hasn’t been fairly as disruptive — forcing 13 turnovers since Clark obtained harm in contrast with 16.2 earlier than — however the outcomes have been equally pleasing.

The subsequent problem might require the Bruins to achieve a brand new stage of lockdown. They should cease Northwestern’s Boo Buie, who frightens even the very best defenses together with his slick playmaking. Buie (17.3 factors per sport) and fellow senior guard Chase Audige (14.0) will undoubtedly be the main target of Cronin’s plan.

“Those guys are veterans, and they’re really good,” Cronin mentioned. “I mean, they don’t need a screen. They can get their own shot off the dribble. They got great one-on-one ability.”

One possibility could be to place Bailey on Buie given his continued late-season emergence on each ends of the courtroom. Is that an project Bailey would covet?

“I’m always up for a challenge, whoever it is,” Bailey mentioned. “Lace the kicks up, and let’s get it.”

Should whoever is guarding Buie get beat, some assist might arrive on the again line. UCLA freshman heart Adem Bona would possibly return from the left shoulder damage that has sidelined him for the reason that Pac-12 Conference event semifinal in opposition to Oregon. Bona was accessible to play in opposition to Asheville, although Cronin selected to permit his shoulder extra time to heal.

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Cronin mentioned he would put Bona by a extra rigorous observe Friday, asking him to do extra issues, to evaluate whether or not he would play in opposition to the Wildcats.

Clark’s presence can be felt, even when his in-game contribution could possibly be confined to live-tweeting like he did throughout the Pac-12 event. His teammates have stored him of their heads and hearts, remaining linked in any means they will regardless of the space.

“We call him, text him,” UCLA guard David Singleton mentioned. “Always ask him how he’s doing. Sometimes, like, he doesn’t tell me, but I know I’m annoying him, trying to keep up with him, everything like that. He says: ‘I’m fine. I’m good. Don’t worry about me, worry about the games.’ ”

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark celebrates against Arizona on March 4, 2023.

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark celebrates throughout the Bruins’ 82-73 win in opposition to Arizona on March 4. The defensive stalwart suffered a leg damage that sport and is out for the season.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The Bruins have persevered by sustaining the defense-first mindset their coach calls for. Players break crew huddles earlier than every sport by yelling, in unison, “Lock in on defense!”

They solely want there was yet another voice, belonging to the participant referred to as J-Rock.

“I miss my teammate,” freshman guard Dylan Andrews mentioned, “but we’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep pushing. That’s one of our motivations right there, we want to get this banner for Rock.”