Fresh off its first conference regular-season title in a decade, second-ranked UCLA will begin its quest for a Pac-12 tournament crown when it faces Colorado in the quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas.
The top-seeded Bruins (27-4) bring a 10-game winning streak to Sin City, the most recent victory being 82-73 over defending conference tournament champ Arizona. But in that game, UCLA was dealt a serious blow to its postseason hopes when junior guard Jaylen Clark sustained a lower-leg injury.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin initially said Clark would not travel to the Pac-12 tournament. On Wednesday, multiple media outlets reported that Clark, the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, was out for the rest of the season due to an Achilles injury.
Clark was averaging 13.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game, helping UCLA hold opponents to 40.7 percent shooting from the field and 60.1 points per game. Freshmen Dylan Andrews and Will McClendon will be asked to fill the void.
“It’s just a next-man-up mentality,” UCLA wing Jaime Jaquez Jr. said. “I have trust in those guys, the rest of the team believes in them, (and) coach believes in them. They’re going to be ready for the challenge.”
Jaquez was named Pac-12 Player of the Year, part of a near sweep of the conference awards for the Bruins along with Clark, Adem Bona winning Freshman of the Year, and Cronin receiving Coach of the Year honors.
“That’s coaching staff of the year,” Cronin said.
Colorado advanced to the quarterfinals with a 74-68 win over Washington on Wednesday. The ninth-seeded Buffaloes (17-15) got 21 points from sophomore guard Julian Hammond III, who was making his second straight start while point guard KJ Simpson is out due to mononucleosis.
“I think we played with great resilience down the stretch,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “You find out in games like this who wants to continue.”
UCLA won both meetings with Colorado during the regular season, including a 60-56 result in Boulder on Feb. 26 that clinched the regular-season title.
“We know what they’re all about,” Boyle said. “They’re the best team in the league.”
While the Buffaloes won’t have Simpson, they still have all-conference forward Tristan da Silva, who averages 16 points per game. The junior had 18 points (on 7-of-11 shooting) to go with five assists and four rebounds in the win over the Huskies. However, he shot just 7 of 19 from the field in two games against the Bruins this season.
If a close game happens, the edge might go to the Buffaloes, who have played 10 contests decided by six points or less compared to five for the Bruins. Even so, Colorado is 4-6 in tight games while UCLA is 3-2.
UCLA, which reached last year’s Pac-12 final, has not won the tournament since 2014. Colorado earned its only conference tourney crown in 2012, its first season in the league, but has reached at least the semifinals in three straight completed Pac-12 tournaments.
–Field Level Media