Jaylen Clark has made two-thirds of his shots through three games and appears on the verge of becoming a go-to scorer.
The UCLA junior guard will look to make it four consecutive strong performances when the No. 8 Bruins (3-0) face No. 19 Illinois (3-0) on Friday night in the Main Event at Las Vegas.
The winner of Friday’s game will face either No. 5 Baylor or No. 16 Virginia in Sunday’s title game. The consolation game also will be played on Sunday.
Clark leads UCLA in scoring (17.3 points per game), rebounding (8.0) and steals (13 total). He has made 20 of 30 field-goal attempts, including 7 of 13 from 3-point range.
Clark already has matched last season’s 3-point total when he shot a meager 25.9 percent from behind the arc. He said the improvement comes down to work.
“I feel like half of it is confidence, but the real answer is just work,” Clark said. “I’m here shooting every day after practice, after film, after walkthroughs, off days, on days. I’m shooting every day, getting up 700 shots on the gun. I don’t need no trainer or nothing like that. Just seeing the ball go through the hoop over time gives me confidence.”
Clark made all seven of his field-goal attempts while scoring 17 points in a season-opening win over Sacramento State. He followed with 16 points against Long Beach State and then made a career-high five 3-pointers while scoring 19 points in Monday’s 86-56 victory over Norfolk State.
Bruins coach Mick Cronin looked at Clark’s shooting as a project when he first arrived on campus.
“We had to reconstruct Jaylen’s shot from the time he got here,” Cronin said. “… He also takes open shots. But he’s worked really hard. Early on, all this success, he deserves, because he’s put the time in. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Illinois also is off to a strong start behind newcomers Terrence Shannon Jr. and Jayden Epps.
Shannon spent the past three seasons at Texas Tech before transferring to Illinois. He is averaging a team-best 22.7 points and scored a career-best 30 in Monday’s 103-65 steamrolling of Monmouth.
Epps, a freshman, scored a career-best 21 points against Monmouth and is averaging 12.0 points per game.
Epps had just two points while battling a case of the nerves in a season-opening win over Eastern Illinois. He improved to 12 points against Kansas City before making 8 of 12 shots in the stellar outing against Monmouth.
“I would say that I just had to get a feel of it, and I realized that playing defense and playing hard, it gets you everything,” Epps said. “It opens up everything for you. When you play defense, and you play hard, and you’re sharing the ball, and you’re out there with a free mind, and just playing for your teammates, everything opens up.”
Epps is one of four freshmen receiving more than 15 minutes of playing time for coach Brad Underwood, who said there is a line to walk.
“We let them play through some of these things in some of these games, but to be great people we’ve got to really minimize those mistakes,” Underwood said. “There’s a thing called game slippage. You can cover stuff in practice, you can cover it and you can get it right and all of a sudden the flow of the game gets going and veterans don’t make those mistakes a lot of times. We’re getting better at those.”
UCLA holds a 6-3 edge and won the most recent meeting, 74-69 on Dec. 30, 1997.
–Field Level Media