Jaylen Clark conjures up defense-minded UCLA in NCAA event

Earlier than he left the rostrum late Thursday evening, Mick Cronin saluted somebody a number of hundred miles away.

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

Sure, 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 turn out to be a galvanizing drive, even whereas resting his injured leg again in Southern California as his staff 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. stated 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 evening at Golden 1 Middle.

His presence could be felt in each sideline entice, each deflected cross, each blocked shot that he conjures up. What could be the most effective 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 closing regular-season recreation.

Really, the Bruins have gotten higher, a minimum of analytically. They’ve given up a mean of 59.8 factors within the 4 video games since Clark acquired damage, down from the 60.1 factors they’d allowed beforehand. Alongside the best way, 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 evening.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Instances)

No person does it higher as a result of all people on this staff 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 put up.

“We’re not better without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin stated, stating the plain 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 acquired damage in contrast with 16.2 earlier than — however the outcomes have been equally pleasing.

The following problem may require the Bruins to succeed in a brand new stage of lockdown. They must cease Northwestern’s Boo Buie, who frightens even the most effective defenses along with his slick playmaking. Buie (17.3 factors per recreation) and fellow senior guard Chase Audige (14.0) will undoubtedly be the main focus of Cronin’s plan.

“Those guys are veterans, and they’re really good,” Cronin stated. “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 choice could be to place Bailey on Buie given his continued late-season emergence on each ends of the court docket. Is that an project Bailey would covet?

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

Ought to whoever is guarding Buie get beat, some assist may arrive on the again line. UCLA freshman middle Adem Bona would possibly return from the left shoulder harm that has sidelined him for the reason that Pac-12 Convention event semifinal in opposition to Oregon. Bona was out there to play in opposition to Asheville, although Cronin selected to permit his shoulder further time to heal.

Cronin stated he would put Bona via a extra rigorous apply Friday, asking him to do further issues, to evaluate whether or not he would play in opposition to the Wildcats.

Clark’s presence will likely be felt, even when his in-game contribution might be confined to live-tweeting like he did through the Pac-12 event. His teammates have saved him of their heads and hearts, remaining linked in any approach they’ll regardless of the space.

“We call him, text him,” UCLA guard David Singleton stated. “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 through the Bruins’ 82-73 win in opposition to Arizona on March 4. The defensive stalwart suffered a leg harm that recreation and is out for the season.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Related Press)

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

They solely want there was yet one more voice, belonging to the participant often known as J-Rock.

“I miss my teammate,” freshman guard Dylan Andrews stated, “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.”