Mick Cronin has options if UCLA star Jaime Jaquez Jr. can’t play North Carolina

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. drives around St. Mary's forward Dan Fotu.
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. drives around St. Mary’s forward Dan Fotu (42) during the first half of a second-round NCAA tournament game on Saturday in Portland, Ore.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

So, what does Mick Cronin do?

Does the UCLA coach go with his top defender if Jaime Jaquez Jr. is unable to play in the biggest game of the season, inserting Jaylen Clark? Or does he go with the emerging Peyton Watson, whose impossibly long arms and legs make him a human roadblock to the basket?

They are questions Cronin hopes he never has to answer.

If all goes well, Jaquez’s sprained right ankle heals sufficiently. The junior guard has nearly a week to undergo whatever intensive recovery regimen trainer Tyler Lesher devises, be it ice, massage, heat, elevation or maybe even a blessing from a shaman.


UCLA is back in the Sweet 16 of NCAA men’s basketball tournament, keeping its March Madness run alive in a 72-56 victory over St. Mary’s.

March 19, 2022

Anyone who has watched Jaquez push through a bloodied face, a banged-up head and one ankle issue after another expects him to be on the court Friday in Philadelphia when the fourth-seeded Bruins (27-7) face eighth-seeded North Carolina (26-9) in an NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal at Wells Fargo Center.

“Trust me,” Cronin said Saturday evening after his team had overrun St. Mary’s in the second round, “if he can walk, he’ll play.”

Remember, Jaquez returned only minutes after making fans inside the Thomas & Mack Center squeamish when teammate Myles Johnson elbowed him in the face during a game against Nevada Las Vegas, leading to a stream of blood.

He came back briefly against Stanford in late January after reaggravating an ankle injury before the pain became too intense to continue.

Only his coach could stop him from playing in the second half of a game against Colorado in early December after Jaquez had smacked his head on the court, Cronin holding him out as a precaution while acknowledging the sturdiness of his grittiest player.

“His dad said, ‘You can drop him on his head and play him,’ ” Cronin cracked afterward.

Jaquez has missed only one game this season, sitting on the bench in blue sweats during a victory over Oregon State on Jan. 15 because of a sore left ankle. He returned five days later and has played in every game since despite needing a protective brace on each ankle and acknowledging he was dealing with an inflammatory condition that requires constant attention.

In the game Jaquez sat out, Cronin turned to Clark and wasn’t disappointed with the results. Making his first career start, the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard scored all 11 of his points before halftime and played some center as part of a small-ball lineup that effectively shut down the Beavers.


Of course, North Carolina presents a far greater challenge than a Pac-12 rival that logged three wins. The surging Tar Heels feature a true center in the 6-foot-10 Armando Bacot and a stretch four in the 6-foot-9 Brady Manek, leading to matchup difficulties.

North Carolina guard RJ Davis, forward Brady Manek and forward Armando Bacot celebrate.
North Carolina guard RJ Davis (4), forward Brady Manek (45) and forward Armando Bacot (5) celebrate in the second half of a second-round game against Baylor in the NCAA tournament in Fort Worth on Saturday.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

Manek made four three-pointers and scored 26 points against top-seeded Baylor on Saturday before being ejected in the second half for throwing an elbow that was ruled a flagrant-2 foul. The disqualification does not come with an automatic suspension, meaning Manek is expected to return against the Bruins.

Jaquez would likely draw the bearded Oklahoma transfer as his defensive assignment, should Jaquez be cleared to play against North Carolina. He’s listed as day to day, with his status likely to be the first question lobbed at Cronin each day.

Clark would give up several inches to Manek but nothing in the determination department, eager to make things difficult despite the height disparity. The alternative would be to let the 6-foot-8 Watson use his 7-foot-1 wingspan that has earned him the nickname “Peyton SWATson” and helped him become a lockdown defender in recent weeks.

The Bruins have spent most of the season playing short-handed because of injuries. Among the regular members of the rotation, only guard Jules Bernard and Johnson have not missed any games because of injuries.


“It would be back to normal for us if [Jaquez] didn’t play,” Cronin said. “It’s been going on all year.”

Even so, Jaquez’s absence would represent a blow transcending the loss of his averages of 14 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He’s carried the Bruins’ offense for long stretches late in the season, averaging 21 points during his past seven games.

UCLA faces adversity after Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s ankle injury in Saturday’s second-round win over St. Mary’s, but don’t count out Jaquez or the Bruins.

March 19, 2022

At times in the first half against St. Mary’s, it felt as if Jaquez was not only UCLA’s best option but its only option as most of his teammates stood around. Jaquez scored all 15 of his points before halftime, departing with the ankle injury with just under seven minutes to play in the game.

His presence infuses his teammates with a determination that has made him UCLA’s most indispensable player since cementing his spot as a starter early in his freshman season with inspired play in the Maui Invitational.

Along the way, he’s become one of the most beloved Bruins beyond the family behind the team bench blowing him kisses after he got hurt against the Gaels. With one sentence Friday, the P.A. announcer in the Wells Fargo Center could prompt some of the evening’s biggest roars.

“Starting at guard, a 6-7 junior from Camarillo, Calif., Jaime Jaquez Jr.!”