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Jaylen Clark is out but continues to inspire defensive-minded UCLA in NCAA tournament

Before leaving the podium on Thursday night, Mick Cronin greeted someone several hundred kilometers away.

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

Yes, the UCLA Bruins certainly do.

Clark is their best defender, if not the best in the nation. It’s the emotional spark plug for him, following up his snaps that lead to easy baskets with a muscular flex and powerful roar.

He has also become a motivating force, even as he rests his injured leg in Southern California as his team tries to march in March without him.

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

His presence can be felt in every side trap, every pass deflection, every blocked shot he inspires. What might be the best defense in the nation hasn’t experienced a decline since Clark limped to the sideline, never to return, against Arizona during UCLA’s final regular-season game.

In reality, the Bruins have improved, at least analytically. They have given up an average of 59.8 points in the four games since Clark was hurt, down from the 60.1 points they had previously allowed. Along the way, they climbed a place in defensive efficiency metrics by basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, ranking #1 nationally.

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

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Nobody does it better because all in this team has intensified. Jáquez racked up a career-high five steals in one half. Amari Bailey obstructed the passing lanes. Tyger Campbell stripped his balls. Kenneth Nwuba he handled the position admirably.

“We’re no better off without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said, stating the obvious in case anyone needed to listen. “I think our intensity has gone up lately. That helped. I think Jaime has definitely taken detours from him, defense, trying to create more steals. He and Amari are definitely trying to make up for some of Jaylen Clark’s absence with activity from him on the defensive end.”

UCLA hasn’t been quite as disruptive, forcing 13 turnovers since Clark went down compared to 16.2 before, but the results have been just as satisfying.

The next challenge could require the Bruins to reach a new level of blocking. They’ll have to stop Northwestern Boo Buie, who scares even the best defensemen with his clever play. Buie (17.3 ppg) 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 with the dribble. They have great one-on-one ability.”

One option would be to put Bailey on Buie given his continued late-season appearances on both ends of the floor. Is that a task Bailey would covet?

“I’m always up for a challenge, whoever it is,” Bailey said. “Tie up the kicks and let’s do it.”

If they beat whoever is guarding Buie, some help could come in the back line. UCLA freshman center Adem Bona could 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 decided to allow his shoulder to heal longer.

Cronin said he would put Bona through a more rigorous practice Friday, asking him to do additional things to assess whether he would play the Wildcats.

Clark’s presence will be felt, even if his in-game contribution might be limited to live tweeting like he did during the Pac-12 tournament. His teammates have had him in their heads and hearts, staying connected as much as they can despite the distance.

“We called him, we texted him,” UCLA guard David Singleton said. “Always ask him how he is. Sometimes he won’t tell me, but I know I’m bothering him, trying to keep up with him, all of that. 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 Jaylen Clark celebrates during the Bruins’ 82-73 win over Arizona on March 4. The defensive stalwart suffered a leg injury in that game and will sit out the season.

(Ringo H. W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The Bruins have persevered by maintaining the defense-first mentality their coach demands. The players break up the team groups before each game shouting in unison: “Watch out for the 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 He said, “but we’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep pushing. That is one of our motivations right there, we want to get this poster for Rock”.