As of Wednesday morning, UCLA’s next opponent was unknown. On paper, the No. 2-ranked Bruins were waiting for Colorado to defeat Washington and advance to the Pac-12 Conference Tournament quarterfinals at noon Thursday in Las Vegas.
In theory, UCLA’s toughest opponent is much more important than any team it will face this week, even if it means facing Arizona in the conference tournament final for the second consecutive season.
UCLA is up against the clock. Time is all that can help the Pac-12 regular-season champions find a new identity without Clark, who was hurt in Saturday’s victory over Arizona and is reportedly out for the season with an Achilles injury, according to Jeff Goodman of Stadium.
“Jaylen Clark has a lower-leg injury,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin told reporters Tuesday morning. “That’s all I’m authorized to say. He’s out this week. He will not travel with us to Las Vegas.”
Clark left UCLA’s game against Arizona early in the second half. The junior guard was backpedaling on defense when he winced and reached down for his right foot area. He was helped off the court and into the tunnel before coming back out to join his team on the bench with crutches and a walking boot on his right foot.
UPDATE: Jaylen Clark returns to the floor, but with crutches and a boot on his right foot. pic.twitter.com/SS2zuAG4QD
— Tarek Fattal (@Tarek_Fattal) March 5, 2023
There has been swirling speculation about Clark’s injury, whether the injury is to his Achilles or toe, and whether it’s an injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season. With news about Clark’s injury out there, that makes time UCLA’s biggest opponent this week, especially with the Bruins’ overall seed in the NCAA Tournament looming.
Neither Cronin nor the team’s spokesperson has confirmed Clark is out for the year, but without the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, UCLA is a different team, which could impact its seeding in the NCAA Tournament if it doesn’t win the conference tournament.
“We will communicate with the NCAA Tournament selection committee if they contact us as far as (Clark’s) further availability,” Cronin added.
Although a No. 1 overall seed is what UCLA (27-4) wants, the team is still a strong candidate for a top seed regardless of what happens in Las Vegas through the weekend. The tournament, which UCLA has not won since 2014, will provide a glimpse of what the Bruins will look like without Clark, starting with Thursday’s game against the ninth-seeded Buffaloes (17-15).
“Opportunity,” Cronin said. “A great thing for young kids. I believe in our young guys. This creates more opportunity for Will McClendon, Dylan Andrews, Abramo Canka – I’m excited for those guys. Jaylen Clark is an unbelievably mature kid. He’s in a great place mentally and he’s excited for them.”
The Bruins, as they often have this season, will rely on old reliable, Pac-12 Player of the Year, Jaime Jaquez Jr., who believes other Bruins will step up in Clark’s absence.
“It’s a next-man up mentality,” said Jaquez, who Wednesday was named as one of five finalists for the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award.
“I was telling Abramo, Will and Dylan to just be ready. It’s a crazy time of the year, they’re here for a reason and they’re here to help us win games.”
UCLA won both its games against Colorado this season – overcoming a rough shooting night for a 68-54 home victory Jan. 14, followed by surviving in Boulder with a 60-56 victory on Feb. 26 to clinch the conference title.
No. 1 seed UCLA vs. No. 9 seed Colorado
What: Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals
When: Noon Thursday
Where: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
TV/Radio: Pac-12 Networks/AM 570