News Analysis: The loss of Jaylen Clark doesn’t mean end of the road for UCLA’s title hopes

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark drives past Arizona State forward Jamiya Neal.
UCLA guard Jaylen Clark drives past Arizona State forward Jamiya Neal (5) during the second half Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Jaylen Clark’s lower-leg injury changes things.

If UCLA manages the situation correctly, maybe not everything.

The possible season-ending loss of the team’s defensive maestro, a.k.a. the Man of Steal, to the injury suffered during a win over Arizona on Saturday night is unequivocally a huge blow to the Bruins’ national championship hopes.


It doesn’t have to be a fatal one.

Fortunately for the Bruins, they have a sixth man experienced at sliding into the starting lineup and two other active defenders on the bench who can largely compensate for Clark’s absence. What’s more, they’ve all done this before.

Clark tweeted two hearts and a thank you emoji late Saturday after returning to UCLA’s bench on crutches with one foot in a walking boot. He limped to the bench a little more than two minutes into the second half before becoming overcome by emotion and needing assistance to the locker room.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin said Tuesday that Clark was out for the Pac-12 Conference tournament this week and would not travel to Las Vegas, adding the Bruins would speak with the NCAA tournament selection committee if it wanted to inquire about Clark’s further availability.

“I’m not trying to avoid things with the tournament committee,” Cronin said, “so if they wish to communicate with us, I’m sure they will.”

The loss of the team’s top defender should not be understated. Clark is a candidate for national defensive player of the year who led the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals per game and can defend every position on the court. With his active hands, quick feet and relentless approach, he often made it difficult for those he guarded to just get off a pass cleanly.

No matter what happens in the Pac-12 tournament next week, the UCLA men’s basketball team deserves to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

March 5, 2023

Clark was an emotional spark plug on track to earn the team’s Hungry Dog Award, a rawhide dog bone that goes to the player who tallies the most deflections — steals, blocks, tipped passes and loose balls collected. He departed early in the second half of the Bruins’ 82-73 victory over the Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion after a steal in the backcourt that led to a layup, Clark gutting through the pain for one final highlight in the regular-season finale.


“Jaylen Clark is an unbelievably mature kid, so he’s in a great place mentally and he’s excited for” his teammates, Cronin said.

There’s no upside to the situation, but some perspective and planning could calm the angst and quiet the nerves. UCLA has overcome significant absences before. It was two years ago that Chris Smith, the team’s second-leading scorer, was lost to a midseason knee injury not long before Jalen Hill, the Bruins’ top interior defender, left to deal with anxiety and depression.

Remember what happened next? That team advanced to the Final Four.

This season, the No. 2 Bruins (27-4) have withstood one significant injury. Freshman guard Amari Bailey missed more than a month because of discomfort in his left foot. Cronin inserted sixth man David Singleton into the starting lineup, gave freshmen Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon extra minutes off the bench, and the team went 6-1 before Bailey returned.

UCLA guard Dylan Andrews shoots as Washington State guard Jabe Mullins and guard TJ Bamba defend.
UCLA’s Dylan Andrews shoots as Washington State’s Jabe Mullins, left, and TJ Bamba, right, defend Feb. 4 at Pauley Pavilion.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Like Clark, the 6-foot-2 Andrews is a defensive troublemaker who can pester opponents with his ability to tip and steal passes. Andrews helped the Bruins pull out a road victory over Arizona State this season with seven first-half points and a steal that he followed with a breakaway dunk.

McClendon is a promising 3-and-D player who needs to regain his confidence after missing last season because of a knee injury. He has made only two of 23 three-point attempts (.087%) in his debut season, but his shooting isn’t the reason his value just skyrocketed; his defensive smarts and activity will be essential for the Bruins to keep playing into April.


There also might be a handful of minutes for freshman swingman Abramo Canka, whose length and poise in a limited role have made him a player UCLA fans are eager to see play in coming seasons. That timeline could have just been moved up considerably.

“Opportunity,” Cronin said. “A great thing for young kids. I’ve been saying all year I believe in our young guys. … Fun week to give those guys a chance to play and see how things look.”

Cronin has long derided conference tournaments as essentially meaningless, with some valid examples to back his claim. He has lost in the first round and made a Final Four. He has won the thing and lost his next game, ending his season.

UCLA defeated Arizona 82-73 on Senior Night to cap a perfect season at Pauley Pavilion, but Jaylen Clark suffered an injury. He will have an MRI on Sunday.

March 4, 2023

This will be different. These next few games will be crucial. Top-seeded UCLA needs to figure out its rotations and minutes distribution starting Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas during a Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal against Colorado or Washington.

Bet on Singleton starting. Bet on Andrews and McClendon playing more minutes off the bench. And if they all play up to their capabilities, bet on the Bruins remaining formidable.