Jaylen Clark is out but still inspiring defense-focused UCLA in the NCAA tournament

Before leaving the podium late Thursday night, Mick Cronin greeted someone several hundred miles away.

“Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said, “we miss you, mate.”

Yes, the UCLA Bruins definitely.

Clark is their best, if not the best, defenseman in the nation. He is her emotional spark plug and follows his takeaways resulting in easy baskets with a muscular flex and a mighty roar.

He’s also become an electric force, even while resting his injured leg in Southern California while his team attempts that March march without him.

“I think we play a lot for Jaylen in this tournament,” said senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. after the second-seeded Bruins (30-5) easily defeated North Carolina Asheville 86-53 in the first round of the NCAA tournament . Setting up a second-round showdown against the seventh-place finisher northwest (22-11) on Saturday nights at the Golden 1 Center.

His presence is felt in every touchline, every deflected pass, every blocked shot he inspires. Perhaps the nation’s best defense hasn’t seen a glitch since Clark hobbled to the sidelines during UCLA’s last regular season game against Arizona, never to return.

Actually, the Bruins have gotten better, at least analytically. They have averaged 59.8 points in the four games since Clark was injured, compared to the 60.1 points they previously allowed. They moved up one spot on the way up the defensive efficiency indicators by nationally ranked basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy.

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

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Nobody does it better because all in this team has strengthened. Jaquez amassed a career-high five steals in one half. Amari Bailey clogged passing lanes. Tyger Campbell undressed balls. Kenneth Nwuba filled the post admirably.

“We’re no better without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said, stating the obvious in case anyone needed to hear it. “I think our intensity has increased lately. That’s helped. I think Jaime definitely took his distractions and defense and tried to create more steals. He and Amari are definitely trying to make up for some of Jaylen Clark’s absence with their defensive activity.”

UCLA hasn’t been quite as disruptive — they’ve forced 13 turnovers since Clark was injured, compared to 16.2 before — but the results have been equally gratifying.

The next challenge could require the Bruins to reach a new level of lockdown. You need to stop Northwestern Boo Buie, who scares even the best defenses with his sophisticated play structure. Buie (17.3 points per game) and other senior guard track audio (14.0) will no doubt be the focus of Cronin’s plan.

“These guys are veterans, and they’re really good,” Cronin said. “I mean, they don’t need a screen. They can get their own shot out of dribbling. They have great one on one ability.”

One option would be to put Bailey on Buie as he keeps popping up at both ends of the court late in the season. Is that a job Bailey would covet?

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

Should someone guarding Buie get hit, some help could arrive in the back line. UCLA freshman center Adem Bona could be returning from the left shoulder injury that has sidelined him since the semifinals of the Pac-12 conference tournament against Oregon. Bona was available to play against Asheville, although Cronin chose to give his shoulder extra time to heal.

Cronin said he would put Bona through more rigorous training on Friday and would ask him to do additional things to assess if he would play the Wildcats.

Clark’s presence will be felt, although his in-game contribution could be limited to live tweets like he did during the Pac-12 tournament. His teammates have kept him in their minds and hearts and have stayed connected in every way possible despite the distance.

“We’ll call him, text him,” said UCLA security guard David Singleton. “Always ask him how he’s doing. Sometimes he doesn’t tell me, but I know I tease him by trying to keep up with him, all those things. He says: “I’m fine. I’m doing well. 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 the Bruins’ 82-73 win over Arizona on March 4th. The defender suffered a leg injury that game and is out for the season.

(Ringo HW Chiu/Associated Press)

The Bruins have persevered by maintaining the defensive mindset their coach demands. Players break team huddles before each game by chanting, “Defend yourself!”

They only wish there was another voice owned by the player known as J-Rock.

“I miss my teammate,” Freshman Guard Dylan Andrews said: “But we’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep pushing. That’s one of our motivations, we want to get that banner for rock.”

Source : www.latimes.com

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