Jaylen Clark inspires defense-minded UCLA in NCAA tournament

Earlier than he left the rostrum late Thursday night time, Mick Cronin saluted somebody a number of hundred miles away.

“Jaylen Clark,” Cronin mentioned, “we miss you, buddy.”

Sure, the UCLA Bruins definitely do.

Clark is their finest defender, if not the nation’s finest. He’s their emotional spark plug, following his takeaways resulting in straightforward baskets with a muscled flex and a mighty roar.

He has additionally grow to be a galvanizing power, even whereas resting his injured leg again in Southern California as his staff makes an attempt this March march with out him.

“I believe we’re taking part in quite a bit for Jaylen this event,” senior ahead Jaime Jaquez Jr. mentioned after the second-seeded Bruins (30-5) simply dispatched North Carolina Asheville 86-53 within the first spherical of the NCAA event, establishing a second-round showdown towards seventh-seeded Northwestern (22-11) on Saturday night time at Golden 1 Heart.

His presence will be felt in each sideline entice, each deflected cross, each blocked shot that he conjures up. What could be the very best protection within the nation hasn’t skilled a drop-off since Clark limped to the sideline, by no means to return, towards Arizona throughout UCLA’s closing regular-season recreation.

Truly, the Bruins have gotten higher, at the least analytically. They’ve given up a median of 59.8 factors within the 4 video games since Clark bought harm, down from the 60.1 factors they’d allowed beforehand. Alongside the way in which, they moved up one place within the defensive effectivity metrics of basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, taking up the No. 1 spot nationally.

The Bruins’ Amari Bailey, left and Jaime Jaquez Jr. battle UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abee for a rebound Thursday night time.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Occasions)

No person does it higher as a result of everyone on this staff has stepped up. Jaquez stockpiled a career-high 5 steals in a single half. Amari Bailey clogged passing lanes. Tyger Campbell stripped balls. Kenneth Nwuba admirably manned the submit.

“We’re not higher with out Jaylen Clark,” Cronin mentioned, stating the plain in case anybody wanted to listen to it. “I believe our depth has gone up currently. That’s helped. I believe Jaime has positively taken his deflections, protection, making an attempt to create extra steals. He and Amari are positively making an attempt to make up for a few of Jaylen Clark’s absence with their exercise on the defensive finish.”

UCLA hasn’t been fairly as disruptive — forcing 13 turnovers since Clark bought harm in contrast with 16.2 earlier than — however the outcomes have been equally pleasing.

The following problem might require the Bruins to achieve a brand new degree of lockdown. They must cease Northwestern’s Boo Buie, who frightens even the very best defenses along with his slick playmaking. Buie (17.3 factors per recreation) and fellow senior guard Chase Audige (14.0) will undoubtedly be the main focus of Cronin’s plan.

“These guys are veterans, they usually’re actually good,” Cronin mentioned. “I imply, they don’t want a display. They’ll get their very own shot off the dribble. They bought nice one-on-one capability.”

One possibility can be to place Bailey on Buie given his continued late-season emergence on each ends of the court docket. Is that an project Bailey would covet?

“I’m all the time up for a problem, whoever it’s,” Bailey mentioned. “Lace the kicks up, and let’s get it.”

Ought to whoever is guarding Buie get beat, some assist might arrive on the again line. UCLA freshman middle Adem Bona would possibly return from the left shoulder damage that has sidelined him for the reason that Pac-12 Convention event semifinal towards Oregon. Bona was out there to play towards Asheville, although Cronin selected to permit his shoulder further time to heal.

Cronin mentioned he would put Bona via a extra rigorous apply Friday, asking him to do further issues, to evaluate whether or not he would play towards the Wildcats.

Clark’s presence can be felt, even when his in-game contribution might be confined to live-tweeting like he did throughout the Pac-12 event. His teammates have saved him of their heads and hearts, remaining linked in any manner they will regardless of the gap.

“We name him, textual content him,” UCLA guard David Singleton mentioned. “All the time ask him how he’s doing. Typically, like, he doesn’t inform me, however I do know I’m annoying him, making an attempt to maintain up with him, all the pieces like that. He says: ‘I’m high-quality. I’m good. Don’t fear about me, fear concerning the video games.’ ”

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

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark celebrates throughout the Bruins’ 82-73 win towards Arizona on March 4. The defensive stalwart suffered a leg damage that recreation and is out for the season.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Related Press)

The Bruins have persevered by sustaining the defense-first mindset their coach calls for. Gamers break staff huddles earlier than every recreation by yelling, in unison, “Lock in on protection!”

They solely want there was another voice, belonging to the participant often known as J-Rock.

“I miss my teammate,” freshman guard Dylan Andrews mentioned, “however we’re going to maintain going, we’re going to maintain pushing. That’s certainly one of our motivations proper there, we wish to get this banner for Rock.”