Jaylen Clark is out, but the defense still inspires UCLA in the NCAA tournament

Before leaving the podium late Thursday night, Mick Cronin greeted someone hundreds of miles away.

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

Yes, the UCLA Bruins do.

Clark is their best defender, if not the best in the nation. He is their emotional spark, with his muscular flex and powerful buzz leading to easy baskets.

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

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

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

The truth is, the Bruins have gotten better, at least analytically. They have averaged 59.8 points in four games since Clark’s injury, down from 60.1 points previously. Along the way, they moved up one spot in basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency metrics, taking the top spot nationally.

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

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

No one does it better because everyone on this team has stepped up. Jaquez had five steals in one half. Amari Bailey clogged the passing lanes. Tyger Campbell stripped the balls. Kenneth Nwuba had great control of the post.

“We’re not better without Jaylen Clark,” Cronin said, stating the obvious if anyone needed to hear it. “I think our intensity has increased recently. That has helped. I think Jaime has definitely taken his variations, defense, trying to create more steals. He and Amari are certainly trying to make up for some of Jaylen Clark’s absence with their defensive activity.”

UCLA hasn’t been nearly as disruptive — forcing 13 turnovers since Clark’s injury compared to 16.2 previously — but the results have been pleasing, too.

The next challenge could require the Bruins to reach a new level of blocking. They will have to stop Northwestern’s Boo Buie, who terrorizes even the best defenses with his playmaking. Buie (17.3 points per game) and senior teammate Chase Audige (14.0) will undoubtedly be the linchpin 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 shot off the dribble. They got a great sudden ability.’

One option would be to bench Bailey Buie, a consistent late-season breakout on both ends of the court. Is this a role Bailey would covet?

“I’m always up for a challenge, no matter who it is,” Bailey said. “Link the kicks and let’s get it.”

If Buie were to beat whoever was guarding him, some help might get to the back line. UCLA freshman center Adem Bona is likely to return from the left shoulder injury that sidelined him for the Pac-12 Conference semifinal against Oregon. Bona was ready to play against Asheville, although Cronin decided to give his shoulder more time to heal.

Cronin said Bona would go through a more rigorous practice on Friday, asking him to do extra things to evaluate if he could play against the Wildcats.

Clark’s presence will be felt, even if his in-game contribution may be limited to live tweeting like in the Pac-12 tournament. His teammates have kept him in his mind and heart, staying connected as best they can despite the distance.

“We call it, send the message,” UCLA guard David Singleton said. “Always ask him how he is doing. Sometimes he doesn’t tell me, but I know I’m annoying him, trying to keep up with him, that’s how it is. He says, ‘I’m fine. I am OK. 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 is out for the season.

(Ringo HW Chiu/Associated Press)

The Bruins have persevered by sticking to the defense-first mindset demanded by their coach. The players break up the huddles between the teams before each game, chanting in unison, “Stand on defense!”

They just wish there was one more voice, that of the player known as J-Rock.

“I miss my teammate,” said freshman guard Dylan Andrews, “but we’re going to keep going, we’re going to keep pushing. That’s one of our motivations, we want to get this banner for the Rock.”

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