Alexander: UCLA gets the job done without Jaylen Clark

LAS VEGAS — No Jaylen Clark? So far, no problem for UCLA’s men’s basketball team.

They showed resilience and resourcefulness as well as that late-game clutch gene in Thursday’s 80-69 Pac-12 Tournament victory over Colorado (which, according to some speculation, would be a future intersectional matchup. More about that below.).

The Bruins likely will not have a fixed template for replacing Clark, who was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week but is unavailable for the foreseeable future – likely for the season – with what coach Mick Cronin euphemistically called a “lower leg” injury.

On Thursday, Cronin started senior David Singleton in Clark’s place, but freshmen Will McLendon and Dylan Andrews played double-figure minutes, and Abramo Canka – who averaged 5.6 minutes a game in the regular season – got a minute on the floor as well in the first half.

“Part of me wanted to start Will just because I like having Dave off the bench,” Cronin said. “I like being able to sub in a starter. In case you get off to a slow start, you can put a guy in that can immediately bank in a couple shots for you.

“But also, I know part of me is like, ‘Look, David’s been the most loyal player I’ve ever coached,’” Cronin added, noting that Singleton was a starter as a freshman, lost that spot to Johnny Juzang as a sophomore but never complained, and has remained a team guy all the way through.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Cronin can be sentimental that way. Fans might chafe at such reasoning in formulating a lineup, but Cronin built what UCLA has now by being loyal to the guys who were loyal to him such as Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., who stayed rather than transferring when Cronin arrived and now are seniors leading a potential No. 1 seed.

That, of course, is still to be determined, and the rest of this tournament will factor into the decisions of the NCAA tournament selection committee. Thursday, at least, was an indication that the Bruins, 28-4 and ranked second in the country, won’t shrivel up without their defensive conscience.

“Not having Jay is tough for sure,” Campbell said. “But we’ve got a lot of capable guys in this locker room that are going to step up for us … I mean, you’re talking about a top 10 candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the country. So that’s the X-factor game-changer right there. But we just got to find ways to keep it up on defense and, you know, fill in that big gap that we have, not having Jay right now.

“We just have to approach it like, we got the guys who are in front of us and those are the guys that we have to win with right now.”

Officially, Cronin sounds like a hockey coach discussing “lower body” injuries, and that’s by design. He confirmed Thursday that he’s limited in what he can say because of HIPAA regulations that protect medical privacy.

Unofficially, Jeff Goodman of the Stadium website tweeted Wednesday that Clark’s season is over with an Achilles injury.

BREAKING: UCLA’s Jaylen Clark is out for the rest of the season with an Achilles injury, source told @Stadium.

Brutal blow to the Bruins hopes of going deep in the NCAA tourney.

Clark is arguably the best defender in the country, also emerged as a solid third scoring option.

— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) March 8, 2023

“I addressed Jaylen’s status as clear as I’m legally allowed to,” Cronin said, adding some mild grousing about the public’s desire for more concrete information while saying that if the committee asked, “we would be transparent with them.”

Though, he added, they’d be more likely to ask UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond. “I don’t know how much they like me, anyway,” Cronin quipped.

But as for general dissemination of player injuries, Cronin demurred.

“Kids have rights, they have careers,” he said. “If they don’t want us to disclose their injury, OK, that’s their right. And I’m more concerned with doing what’s right for my players than making people in the media happy.”

The Bruins’ effectiveness without Clark was one of the storylines going into Thursday’s Pac-12 quarterfinals. Another one: Would conference commissioner George Kliavkoff show up in his courtside seat, in an environment when the Pac-12 seems (optimistically) embattled or (pessimistically) on the verge of collapse.

Kliavkoff, who declined to do a “state of the conference” presser this week, did show up courtside – but just seconds before the Bruins-Buffaloes tipoff, which may or may not have been intentional. Draw your own conclusions.

The delay in negotiating a new media rights contract for the post-UCLA/USC era has contributed to runaway speculation, and Kliavkoff’s silence has not helped.

The word spread by those within the conference – again, officially – is that the remaining 10 schools are united, things are fine, nothing to see here.

Meanwhile, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark seems to have become increasingly bold about his conference’s desire to add assets in the Pacific time zone, and Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported Thursday that the Pac-12’s Four Corners schools – Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State – have been engaged in “weekly” conversations with the Big 12, with sources in that conference suggesting that if one were to bolt the other three might quickly follow.

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Thus, the idea that Bruins-Buffs was a Pac-12 matchup between one team headed for the Big Ten and another that might have a foot out the door to the Big 12. The quieter Pac-12 officials are in this matter, the louder the speculation about whether it will stay in existence long enough to even sign a media rights contract, discounted or otherwise.

The weirder things get, the less crazy it seems that Southern California will be Big Ten country in another year and a half.

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