Health headlines UCLA tourney opener vs. UNC Asheville

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UCLA’s health will be a key storyline when the second-seeded Bruins begin their NCAA Tournament against 15th-seeded UNC Asheville on Thursday night in a West Region game in Sacramento, Calif.

The Bruins (29-5) played without two starters in last Saturday’s Pac-12 tournament championship game and still managed to have a shot to win at the buzzer before falling 61-59 to Arizona. One of those starters — center Adem Bona, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year — figures to have a good chance to be ready against the Bulldogs (27-7) after sustaining a left shoulder injury Friday night.

“He’s not nearly as sore today as he was (Saturday),” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said on Sunday. “He’s much more pain-free today, so that’s exciting. … It would take a lot to keep him off the floor.”

Jaylen Clark missed the three games at the conference tournament due to a lower right leg injury. He reportedly sustained a season-ending Achilles injury, although neither Cronin nor the school has released much information about the injury or the timetable.

Bona’s absence would rob the Bruins of a shot-blocking presence and leave them with only Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne, who combine for 2.0 points per game, at center.

Clark is the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year on a team that is first nationally in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Without him, the gritty Bruins still held Oregon to 33.3 percent shooting on Friday and Arizona to 36.5 percent on Saturday.

UNC Asheville (27-7) won the Big South regular season and tournament titles, and the Bulldogs have a matchup nightmare in 6-foot-11 senior Drew Pember, who averages 21.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Moreover, he shoots 37.3 percent (56 of 150) from 3-point range, making him dangerous in pick-and-pop situations and as a face-up threat who can shoot from deep or beat slower big men off the dribble.

The Bulldogs have a veteran roster that shoots well from behind the arc (39.0 percent), and they are riding the momentum of 18 victories in their past 19 games.

“When you’re in our position as Big South champion, whoever pops up next to your name is going to be the best team you’ve seen all year,” coach Mike Morrell said of playing UCLA. “You can choose … to go into it and play to win and be aggressive. That’s the mindset we’ll take and we’ll go do our best because that’s all we have.”

Even without Clark and/or Bona, the Bruins can rely on the toughness and scoring craftiness of a trio of seniors – Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell and David Singleton, a 43.2 percent 3-point shooter. Freshman Amari Bailey has picked up more of a scoring role since Clark’s injury, scoring 18.0 points in the past three games.

While some consider UCLA’s title hopes diminished, Cronin doesn’t believe in any excuses.

“There’s always a way to win a game — no matter if Jaylen Clark’s out, Adem’s out, God-forbid that somebody else is,” Cronin said. “Now, it may not be as easy, your margin for error may not be as great, but there’s still a way to win the game if you’re willing to be tough enough to do it. And these guys are because they want to win; that’s what they’re about.”

–Field Level Media

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