UCLA’s Amari Bailey is one of the stars of March Madness 2023

His ethos can be found in large black letters, under his right bicep.

“No vanity,” reads the tattoo.

It would be so easy to get a little involved right now.

Amari Bailey is no longer a rising college basketball star. He is here.

With every slick move at the basket, every defensive stop, every pass that finds a teammate in just the right spot, the UCLA freshman guard is elevating an already formidable team into a potentially unstoppable force at the right time.

He has become so invaluable that his coach lamented not getting him the ball during the Bruins’ 68–63 victory over Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“What did Amri have?” Mick Cronin later said scanning the box score for the point tally. “Fourteen. I was expecting 18. But it’s my fault he didn’t get enough shots. Still working on figuring it out.

Luckily for the Bruins, Bailey is more than capable of taking his shot. He circled around Northwestern’s Boo Bui for a fast break layup, caught a jumper at the end of the shot clock and nailed a three-pointer to give his team their biggest lead of the game.

Along the way, he showed that UCLA’s offense no longer consisted of Jaime Jacquez Jr., Tiger Campbell and whatever scraps the team could find.

“Give credit to Amari Bailey,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “Thought he really stepped up and gave him great production as the third scorer.”

This was not an anomaly. In five games since Jaylen Clark suffered a lower leg injury, Bailey has averaged 17 points, including a career-high 26 against Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament. That average is nearly double Bailey’s 9.6 points before Clarke’s injury and helps Bruins fans understand that they better enjoy his presence during a brief stay in college.

UCLA's Amari Bailey and Jaime Jacquez Jr. fight for rebounds with North Carolina Asheville's Fletcher Abbey.

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Jaime Jacquez Jr. battle with North Carolina Asheville’s Fletcher Abi in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.

(Wally Scalise / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m going to make mistakes and I’m here to learn through all of them, really just being a sponge and soaking up everything I can and seizing every day that comes along am.”

– Amari Bailey, on how he approaches his game

How long can he be around?

“Really just focusing on day-to-day,” Bailey recently told The Times when asked about going to the NBA or coming back to UCLA for another season. “You know, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. Right now, my focus is on helping me win banner No. 12, that’s my No. 1 goal.

He will need to be at the best of his game to see off the blue and gold outfit inside the Pauley Pavilion, each rising to an increasingly difficult challenge. The second-seeded Bruins have a regional semifinal against either third-seeded Gonzaga or sixth-seeded Texas Christian at T-Mobile Arena.

Anyone who thinks Bailey is just a scoring dynamo hasn’t been looking closely. Their lockdown defense on Buie, the Wildcats’ best player, held them without a field goal in the first half and made them unusually inactive before heading into the second half. Buie finished with 18 points, but made only five of 13 shots and was so bad he missed a gimme layup with 13 seconds left that sealed the Wildcats’ fate.

Bailey also drove and dished to center Adem Bona for a dunk early in the game, showcasing his distinctive passing skills. Yes, his three turnovers were the most on the team, a continuing trend that Bailey will likely return to next season, hopefully looking to fix that issue before he moves to the next level.

One aspect of Bailey’s game that has him ready for the NBA is his competitiveness.

“I love people who work hard because they get better,” Cronin said. “If someone will compete then you can polish off the other stuff. Like if I were a front-office executive [in the NBA], If I can’t find the answer, I could care less about length, skill, height, vice versa. If I look at a guy and he doesn’t have a ticker and he won’t compete physically, I can tell you that guy has no shot in the NBA because those guys, for all their drama, those guys work hard, man.

Bailey was a big brand before she even stepped foot on campus, amassing most of her 565,000 Instagram followers. But he didn’t give anyone big time or get lost in his own stardom.

“I never get into it, to be honest,” Bailey said of getting caught up in the publicity. “First I see myself as a human being. I sometimes catch myself like Guess what, but at the end of the day, I’m a 19 year old kid figuring it out just like everyone else. I will say I’m going to make mistakes and I’m here to learn through them all , Really just being a sponge and soaking up everything I can and seizing every day I get here.

Bailey studies every teammate, even watching Russell Stong IV’s moves in practice. The top players who are walk-ons keep the locker room unified, with no groups formed based on the number of stars they received in high school.

“I’ve never played on a team where we were so united,” Bailey said, “really just wanting the best for each other — no matter what we were going through individually, no matter what.” What have we been doing. Off the floor, as soon as we get in the middle of the line or in the practice facility, get on the plane or whatever it is, there’s a quick release so I can always be on the lookout for it.”

For two more weeks, if all goes well.

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