LAS VEGAS —
What happens here could earn UCLA a return trip in two weeks.
All it would take is the Bruins fending off concerns about Jaylen Clark’s absence and how it might affect their NCAA tournament seeding.
Mick Cronin did not seem worried in the least when a reporter informed the coach that he had spoken to ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi about UCLA’s purported need to win the Pac-12 tournament to get a No. 1 seed.
“You spoke to who?” Cronin asked Tuesday.
“Joe Lunardi,” the reporter responded.
“Not sure who that is,” Cronin deadpanned.
“ESPN,” the reporter continued.
“Yeah,” Cronin said, “I don’t have any comment on that. I’d rather you speak to my father, somebody that actually knows basketball.”
Hep Cronin, the Bruins’ unofficial good-luck charm going back to their 2021 Final Four run, is expected to be among the coach’s family members in attendance at T-Mobile Arena when top-seeded UCLA (27-4) plays Washington or Colorado in a quarterfinal at noon Thursday.
He’ll see a team that’s won 10 consecutive games to rise to No. 2 in the nation, even if the Bruins are quietly mourning the loss of Clark to a lower-leg injury that could sideline him for the entire postseason.
Then again, Mick Cronin remained upbeat when asked if his team’s lofty ranking and the indefinite loss of his top defensive player was causing anxiety as the Bruins try to follow a runaway Pac-12 regular-season championship with their first conference tournament title since 2014.
“Nah, heck no,” Cronin said. “ … We’re going to Topgolf tonight to have some fun in Vegas. You know, it’s time to let it rip, it’s time to believe in your team, it’s not time to be anxious at all.”
Ripping off one-liners and smiling so often that you halfway expected him to say the rest of his team’s itinerary would include Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil instead of playing in the Pac-12 tournament, Cronin clearly was trying to keep the mood light. The heavy stuff will come soon enough.
Clark’s absence will be a top storyline however long the Bruins last in the tournament. The Pac-12’s defensive player of the year did not travel with the team, Cronin saying he would give the NCAA tournament selection committee more information about Clark’s status going forward if the committee inquired.
Being coy could have its benefits. Cronin was an assistant under Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins in 2000 when the committee dropped the Bearcats to a No. 2 seed after star Kenyon Martin suffered a broken leg in a Conference USA tournament loss to St. Louis.
The committee acknowledged that seeing so little of the Bearcats after Martin’s injury limited their ability to assess how different they were without the national college player of the year, but it didn’t stop them from penalizing the team.
Cincinnati went on to lose to No. 7 seed Tulsa in the second round.
Lunardi said earlier this week that the committee would be watching closely to see how the Bruins fared without Clark. They’ll undoubtedly see more of David Singleton, Dylan Andrews, Will McClendon and maybe even Abramo Canka, whose roles all figure to expand with Clark sidelined.
“I was telling Abramo and Dylan and Will, the guys like those before the Jaylen incident happened, to just be ready,” said UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., the Pac-12 player of the year. “You never know, this is the craziest time of year, we need you guys to be ready, you’re here for a reason, you’re here to help us win games.”
A good showing at T-Mobile Arena could ensure a happy return for UCLA. The West Regional will be played in the same building, giving Bruins fans another chance to pack the place.
Their recent memories there haven’t been good, the Bruins dropping back-to-back games against Illinois and Baylor in November as part of a nonconference tournament.
“I was thinking about it and potentially we’re playing three games in Vegas” this week, UCLA center Adem Bona said. “So I want to raise the tally up so it’s 3-2.”
That would make it three down, two to go in a couple of weeks.