Jaylen Clark inspires defense-minded UCLA in NCAA tournament

Before leaving 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.

Clarke is their best defender, if not the best in the country. He is their emotional spark plug, leading to easy baskets with a muscled flex and a powerful roar after his takeaway.

He has become a galvanizing force, even while resting his injured leg in Southern California, as his team attempts this March without him.

“I think we’re playing a lot for Jaylen in this tournament,” senior forward Jaime Jacquez Jr. said as the second-seeded Bruins (30-5) routed North Carolina Asheville 86-53 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. easily defeated by setting up a second-round showdown against seventh-seeded Northwestern (22-11) on Saturday night at the Golden 1 Center.

His presence can be felt in every sideline trap, every deflected pass, every blocked shot that he inspires. What may have been the best defense in the nation hasn’t experienced a drop-off since Clark went to the sideline, never to return, during UCLA’s final regular-season game against Arizona.

In fact, the Bruins have gotten better, at least analytically. Since Clarke’s injury, he has averaged 59.8 points in four games, down from 60.1 previously. Along the way, they moved up one spot in basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency metrics, taking the No. 1 spot nationally.

The Bruins' Amari Bailey, left, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. battle UNC Asheville's Fletcher Abbey for a rebound on March 16, 2023.

The Bruins’ Amari Bailey, left, and Jaime Jacquez Jr., from UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abbey, battle for a rebound Thursday night.

(Wally Scalise / Los Angeles Times)

no one does it better because everyone The team has taken steps on this. Jacquez accumulated a career-high five steals in one half. Amari Bailey shut down the passing lanes. Tiger Campbell snatches balls. Kenneth Nuba handled the post admirably.

“We are no better off without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said plainly, in case anyone needed to hear it. “I think our intensity has been up lately. That’s helped. I think Jaime has definitely taken up his defense, defense, trying to get more steals. He and Amari definitely on the defensive end.” But Jaylen is trying to make up for Clark’s absence with his activity.

UCLA hasn’t been as disruptive — forcing 13 turnovers since Clark suffered the injury compared to 16.2 previously — but the results have been equally pleasing.

The next challenge may require the Bruins to reach a new level of lockdown. They will have to stop Northwestern’s Boo Bui, who intimidates even the best defenses with his finesse. 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, he doesn’t need screens. He can get his own shot off the dribble. He’s got great one-on-one ability.

Keeping Bailey on the bench would be an option given his consistent late-season emergence on both ends of the court. Would Bailey like such a job?

Bailey said, “I’m always up for a challenge, whatever it is.” “Lace up the kicks, and get to it.”

Whoever is guarding Bui should be beat, some help may come on the back line. UCLA freshman center Adem Bona could return from a left shoulder injury that has sidelined him since the Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinal against Oregon. Sow was available to play against Asheville, however Cronin decided to give his shoulder extra time to heal.

Cronin said he would put Bona through more rigorous drills on Friday, asking him to do extra stuff, to assess whether he would play against the Wildcats.

Clarke’s presence will be felt, even if his in-game contributions are limited to live-tweeting, as he did during the Pac-12 tournament. His teammates keep him in their heads and hearts, despite the distance they are connected somehow.

“We call him, text him,” said UCLA guard David Singleton. “Always ask him how he’s doing. Sometimes, like, he doesn’t tell me, but I know I’m bothering him, trying to keep up with him, all that stuff. He says : ‘I’m fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, worry about the games.’ ,

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark celebrates against Arizona on March 4, 2023.

UCLA guard Jalen Clark celebrates during the Bruins’ 82-73 win against Arizona on March 4. The defensive stalwart suffered a foot injury in that game and was out for the season.

(Ringo HW Chiu / The Associated Press)

The Bruins have persevered while maintaining the defense-first mindset their coach demands. The players, before each play, chant in unison, “Lock the defense!”

They only wish the player known as J-Rock had one more voice.

Freshman guard Dylan Andrews said, “I miss my teammates,” but we’ll keep going, we’ll keep going. That’s one of our inspirations, we want to get this banner to rock.

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