Jaylen Clark Inspires UCLA to NCAA Tournament

Before he left the podium late Thursday night Mick Cronin saluted someone hundreds of miles away.

Jaylen ClarkCronin said. “We miss you, mate.”

Yes, University of California at Los Angeles of course do it.

Clark is their best quarterback, if not the best in the country. He is their emotional spark plug, following his meal leading to light baskets with a muscular curve and a mighty roar.

It also became a galvanizing force, even while resting his injured leg returned to Southern California when his team tries to march without him this March.

“I think we play Jaylen a lot in this tournament.” – Senior Forward Jaime Jaques Jr. said after the second seeded Bruins (30-5) easy to send North Carolina Asheville 86-53 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, setting up a second round bout against the seventh seed Northwestern (22-11) Saturday night at the Golden 1 Center.

His presence is felt in every sideline trap, in every pass deflected, in every blocked shot he inspires. What could have been the best defense in the country hasn’t fallen since Clarke limped to the sideline, never to return, against Arizona during UCLA’s last game of the regular season.

In fact, the Bruins have gotten better, at least analytically. They have lost an average of 59.8 points in four games since Clarke was injured, compared to the 60.1 points they previously allowed. Along the way they moved in one place protection performance indicators basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, taking first place in the rankings. 1st place in the country.

Amari Bailey of the Bruins (left) and Jaime Jaques Jr.  take on UNC Asheville's Fletcher Abi for the rebound on March 16, 2023

Amari Bailey of the Bruins (left) and Jaime Jaques Jr. take on UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Aby for the rebound on Thursday night.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Nobody does it better because All activated in this team. Jacques made five interceptions in one half. Amari Bailey congested lanes. Tiger Campbell stripped balls. Kenneth Nvuba excellently completed post.

“Without Jalen Clark, we’re no better off,” Cronin said, stating the obvious in case anyone needed to hear it. “I think our intensity has increased lately. That helped. I think Jaime definitely used his deflections, defense, trying to create more interceptions. He and Amari are definitely trying to make up for Jaylen Clark’s absence with defensive activity.”

UCLA hasn’t been as devastating—Clark has taken 13 turnovers since his injury, up from 16.2 before—but the results were just as satisfying.

The next challenge may require the Bruins to enter a new level of isolation. They’ll have to stop the Northwestern Boo Buie, which intimidates even the best defenders with its nimble play. Buye (17.3 points per game) and senior guard Chase Age (14.0) will undoubtedly be at the center of Cronin’s plan.

“These guys are veterans and they are really good,” Cronin said. “I mean they don’t need a screen. They can get their own kick from dribbling. They have great one-on-one abilities.”

One option would be to put Bailey on the Bui, given his constant end-of-season appearances on both ends of the court. Is this the mission Bailey dreams of?

“I’m always ready to take on a challenge, no matter who it is,” Bailey said. “Lace up your kicks and let’s get it.”

If the one guarding Buie gets beaten, help might arrive at the back of the line. UCLA Freshman Center Good Adem may return from a left shoulder injury that sidelined him after the Pac-12 Conference semi-finals against Oregon. Bona was available to play against Asheville, although Cronin decided to give his shoulder some extra time to heal.

Cronin said he’ll put Bona through a more thorough workout on Friday, asking him to do extra things to gauge whether he’ll play against the Wildcats.

Clark’s presence will be felt even if his contribution to the game may be limited to live tweets, as he did during the Pac-12 tournament. His teammates kept him in their heads and hearts, staying connected in every possible way despite the distance.

“We call him, we write to him” UCLA quarterback David Singleton said. “Always ask him how he is doing. Sometimes, for example, he won’t tell me, but I know I’m annoying him, trying to keep up with him and stuff like that. He says, “I’m fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, worry about the games. ”

UCLA quarterback Jaylen Clark celebrates a victory over Arizona on March 4, 2023.

UCLA quarterback Jaylen Clark celebrates the Bruins’ 82-73 victory over the Arizona March 4. The stalwart defender suffered a leg injury in that game and was out for the season.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press)

The Bruins persevered by keeping the defense first, as required by their coach. Before each game, the players break up the teams by shouting in unison, “Lock in defense!”

They only wish there was another voice owned by a player known as J-Rock.

“I miss my teammate.” Freshman Security Guard. Dylan Andrews said: “But we will continue, we will continue to insist. That’s one of our motivations, we want to get this banner for Rock.”