The Colorado Buffaloes have been faced with many unforeseen circumstances this season. The absence of multiple players has led to new challenges, but their commitment and perseverance have led to multiple comeback wins and an opportunity to make a late push.
The Buffs (17-9, 9-7 Pac-12) have battled through one of the toughest conferences in the nation. Head Coach Tad Boyle has been working with a young roster, as Colorado has just two seniors on scholarship, forward Evan Battey and guard Elijah Parquet.
Parquet has been working through a lower-leg injury for the better half of the last month, including a long period without seeing any playing time. Parquet hasn’t started or played in a game since January 27 at Washington and will be out for the remainder of the season.
His injury has led to opportunity for sophomore guard Nique Clifford, who has started in nine games in Parquet’s absence. Clifford has been a surprising bright spot for the Buffs. A talented rebounder with the ability to push the ball in transition, Clifford has proven to be a consistent starter and contributor.
Alongside Clifford, freshman guard K.J. Simpson has thrived in the spotlight. With such a talented sophomore class, it is rare for a freshman to get the playing time that Simpson has had. Simpson, the previous Arizona commit, has averaged over 20 minutes and 6.7 points per game. Although Simpson is a rare start for the Buffs, he brings fantastic ability off the bench. His confidence has allowed his offense to truly unlock and the aggressive athlete has been a great addition to Boyle’s roster.
Twice this season, the young Buffs have come back from double-digit deficits to defeat Pac-12 teams. At Oregon on January 25, the Buffs were down by as much as 15 in the first half. As the game came down to the wire in the final minutes, free throw shooting secured the victory for Colorado. The Buffs shot 90.9% from the line, which helped produce the four point differential for the win.
More recently, on February 12, Utah visited the CU Events Center in an attempt to capitalize on the Buffs recent struggles. An 11-point first half deficit was cut to just three at the half. While Colorado had a surge in turnovers, Utah’s poor free throw percentage gifted the Buffs a close win. Taking advantage of their opportunity, sophomore forward Jabari Walker capitalized with his 12th double-double on the season. In combination with Walker’s play, strong free throw shooting led to another comeback victory.
Considering the huge losses that the Buffs have faced due to injury and other unexpected circumstances, these wins have been key in proving that a young Buffs team can still compete for a postseason berth. As the majority of the playing time has been shared amongst underclassman, their ability to win close games, specifically on the road, with such little experience has been critical.
A win over Cal on Thursday night emphasized that. The Buffs took two 14-to-1 runs to a win after a 35-28 deficit at the half. The youth on the Buffs squad thrived off of the Buffs bench. Simpson scored a career high 19-points in just 26 minutes to help aid the lineup. Walker scored another 19 of his own and 15 rebounds in 35 minutes of play. Clifford may have only had two points, but he was responsible for shutting down Cal’s leading scorer, Jordan Shepherd. The victory was just the third at Cal in 17 tries.
Alongside the spectacular performances from young players (Clifford and Simpson), there has been adversity for others. Freshman center Lawson Lovering suffered a torn MCL, which has sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Since his absence, sophomore guard Luke O’Brien and walk-on senior forward Will Loughlin have been filling in. However, Lovering’s 7-foot-1 stature has been tough to replace. Two of the biggest regular starters, Walker and Battey, each have immense pressure to play well and stay out of foul trouble to help with Lovering’s absence. While they both typically play very well, the foul trouble has been an issue for them in the past.
Alongside the loss of Lovering, Boyle has had problems with the loss of Mason Faulkner, a transfer guard from Western Carolina, who chose to transfer to Louisville instead. However, he made the decision to transfer just before the school year in August, which left Boyle with little to no time to find another guard. Due to this, all of the ball-handlers for the Buffs are underclassman (Simpson, Clifford, sophomore guard Keeshawn Barthelemy and freshman guard Julian Hammond), and while they provide talent, they have little experience. This has been a huge change, as Colorado has gone from an extremely experienced ball-handler in McKinley Wright to athletes with about 400 minutes of combined college basketball experience. This has led to a major turnover issue, which will continue to improve with time and practice,
Between injury and lack of experience, Boyle and the Buffs have made the most of their given opportunities. Despite the few blowout wins and losses, Colorado has kept some of the conference’s top teams within just a few points, including UCLA and USC, both of whom are currently ranked by the NCAA.
The Buffs have hit the road to travel west for a three-game set along the coast, where they will work to continue their development, and prove that they belong in the upper echelon of the Pac-12. It is critical that the Buffs finish their season strong to find themselves in any postseason action. As the regular season begins to wrap up, the majority of the remainder of the season provides a lot of opportunity. If the Buffs continue to push, you can bet they will fight to the finish.