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

Jaylen Clark’s lower leg injury changes things.

If UCLA manages the situation correctly, maybe not everything.

The possible end-of-season loss of the team’s defensive maestro Jaylen Clarkaka the Man of Steal, an Achilles tendon injury sustained in a win over Arizona last weekend is undeniably a huge blow to the Bruins’ national championship hopes.

It doesn’t have to be deadly.

Fortunately for the Bruins, they have a sixth man with experience moving into the starting lineup and two other active defenders on the bench who can largely make up for Clark’s absence. Plus, they’ve all done this before.

Clark tweeted two hearts and a thank you emoji late Saturday after returning to the bench at UCLA on crutches with one foot in a walking boot. He limped to the bench just over two minutes into the second half before being overcome with emotion and needing help to the dressing room.

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

“I don’t try to avoid things with the tournament committee,” Cronin said, “so if they want to communicate with us, I’m sure they will.”

The loss of the team’s top defender should not be underestimated. Clark is a candidate for National Defensive Player of the Year who led the Pac-12 Conference with 2.6 steals per game and can defend any position on the court. With his active hands, quick feet and relentless approach, he often made it difficult for those he was guarding to simply get off a pass cleanly.

Clark was an emotional spark plug on his way to earning the team’s Hungry Dog Award, a rawhide dog bone that goes to the player who counts the most deflections — steals, blocks, tipped passes, and collected loose balls. He went off early in the second half of the No. 2 Bruins’ 82–73 win over the No. 8 Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion after a backcourt theft led to a layup, with Clark struggling through the pain for a final highlight in the match. regular season finale.

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

There’s no benefit to the situation, but some perspective and planning can calm the anxiety and calm the nerves. UCLA has overcome significant absences before. It had been two years since Chris Smith, the team’s second leading scorer, was lost to a mid-season knee injury, not long before Jalen Hill, the Bruins’ top interior defender, left to deal with anxiety and depression.

Do you remember what happened next? That team advanced to the Final Four.

The Bruins have endured one major injury this season. Freshman guard Amari Bailey missed more than a month due to discomfort in his left foot. Cronin put sixth man David Singleton in the starting lineup, gave freshman Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon extra minutes off the bench and the team went 6-1 before Bailey returned.

UCLA guard Dylan Andrews, second from left, shoots as Washington State guard Jabe Mullins, left, and guard TJ Bamba, right, defend during the first half on Feb. 4 at Pauley Pavilion.

(Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

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

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

There may also be a few minutes for freshman swingman Abraham Kanka, whose height and poise in a limited role have made him a player UCLA fans will be looking forward to playing for seasons to come. That timeline could have just been pushed back significantly.

“An opportunity,” Cronin said. “Great fun for young children. I’ve said all year that I believe in our young boys. … Nice week to give those guys a chance to play and see how things turn out.

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

This will be different. These next few games will be crucial. Top-seeded UCLA must sort out the rotations and minute splits starting Thursday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in a Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal against either Colorado or Washington.

Bet on the start of Singleton. Bet on Andrews and McClendon playing more minutes off the bench. And if they all use their abilities, bet the Bruins remain formidable.