Jaylen Clark is out but still inspiring defense-minded UCLA in NCAA tournament
Before he left the podium late Thursday night, Mick Cronin saluted someone several hundred miles away.
“Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said, “we miss you, buddy.”
Yes, the UCLA Bruins certainly do.
Clark is their best defender, if not the nation’s best. He’s their emotional spark plug, following his takeaways leading to easy baskets with a muscled flex and a mighty roar.
He has also become a galvanizing force, even while resting his injured leg back in Southern California as his team attempts this March march without him.
“I think we’re playing a lot for Jaylen this tournament,” senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. said after the second-seeded Bruins (30-5) easily dispatched North Carolina Asheville 86-53 in the first round of the NCAA tournament, setting up a second-round showdown against seventh-seeded Northwestern (22-11) on Saturday night at Golden 1 Center.
Here’s everything you need to know to make a smart bet on UCLA vs. Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
His presence can be felt in every sideline trap, every deflected pass, every blocked shot that he inspires. What might be the best defense in the nation hasn’t experienced a drop-off since Clark limped to the sideline, never to return, against Arizona during UCLA’s final regular-season game.
Actually, the Bruins have gotten better, at least analytically. They have given up an average of 59.8 points in the four games since Clark got hurt, down from the 60.1 points they had allowed previously. Along the way, they moved up one place in the defensive efficiency metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, taking over the No. 1 spot nationally.
Nobody does it better because everybody on this team has stepped up. Jaquez stockpiled a career-high five steals in one half. Amari Bailey clogged passing lanes. Tyger Campbell stripped balls. Kenneth Nwuba admirably manned the post.
“We’re not better without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said, stating the obvious in case anyone needed to hear 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 women’s basketball tracks seven passion play categories. Coach Cori Close says the plays have been vital in their NCAA tournament resurgence.
UCLA hasn’t been quite as disruptive — forcing 13 turnovers since Clark got hurt compared with 16.2 before — but the results have been equally pleasing.
The next challenge could require the Bruins to reach a new level of lockdown. They will have to stop Northwestern’s Boo Buie, who frightens even the best defenses with his slick playmaking. Buie (17.3 points per game) and fellow senior guard Chase Audige (14.0) will undoubtedly be the focus of Cronin’s plan.
“Those guys are veterans, and they’re really good,” Cronin said. “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 option would be to put Bailey on Buie given his continued late-season emergence on both ends of the court. Is that an assignment Bailey would covet?
“I’m always up for a challenge, whoever it is,” Bailey said. “Lace the kicks up, and let’s get it.”
Should whoever is guarding Buie get beat, some help could arrive on the back line. UCLA freshman center Adem Bona might return from the left shoulder injury that has sidelined him since the Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinal against Oregon. Bona was available to play against Asheville, though Cronin chose to allow his shoulder additional time to heal.
No. 2 seed UCLA avoided the upset bug Arizona and Virginia caught, and looked dominant during their big win over No. 15 seed UNC Asheville.
Cronin said he would put Bona through a more rigorous practice Friday, asking him to do additional things, to assess whether he would play against the Wildcats.
Clark’s presence will be felt, even if his in-game contribution could be confined to live-tweeting like he did during the Pac-12 tournament. His teammates have kept him in their heads and hearts, remaining connected in any way they can despite the distance.
“We call him, text him,” UCLA guard David Singleton said. “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.’ ”
The Bruins have persevered by maintaining the defense-first mindset their coach demands. Players break team huddles before each game by yelling, in unison, “Lock in on defense!”
They only wish there was one more voice, belonging to 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 right there, we want to get this banner for Rock.”
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