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Nique Clifford, Luke O’Brien next in line for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Freshmen didn’t play as frequently as classmates in 2020-21

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:
BOULDER, CO - Jan. 14, 2021: ...
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – January 14, 2021: Colorado’s Nique Clifford drives past Cal’s Andre Kelly during the January 14, 2021 game in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Colorado basketball fans saw just enough of Tristan da Silva, and certainly plenty from Jabari Walker, to feel confident in the state of the Buffaloes’ front court in the coming seasons.

And although Keeshawn Barthelemy didn’t post the sort of occasional explosive performances turned in by Walker and even da Silva, in his limited minutes backing up star point guard McKinley Wright IV, Barthelemy nonetheless showed enough to be encouraged the floor general spot will remain in good hands.

Unlike fellow freshmen Walker, da Silva and Barthelemy (a redshirt freshman), Nique Clifford and Luke O’Brien spent the bulk of the season on the bench, attempting to improve at practice while biding their time to make a bigger impact.

That time officially is on the horizon. Head coach Tad Boyle confirmed to BuffZone last week that he does not expect any of the Buffs’ six scholarship seniors from the 2020-21 season — Wright, D’Shawn Schwartz, Dallas Walton, Jeriah Horne, Maddox Daniels, and Alex Strating — to return to Boulder with the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA for the pandemic season. Schwartz already has committed to George Mason, now coached by former CU assistant Kim English, while Horne is returning to Tulsa.

The youth movement in CU’s rotation already is underway. Walker was the most explosive of the Buffs’ freshmen this season, with his 24 points against Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the most by a CU player in seven NCAA Tournament games under Boyle. Da Silva’s minutes increased steadily as the season progressed, and his season-high 15 points helped make the difference in a home win on Feb. 8 against eventual Elite Eight qualifier Oregon State.

Barthelemy struggled at times with his shot but a strong finish — he went 6-for-15 from 3-point range over the final six games — left the redshirt freshman with a final .304 mark on 3-pointers. When Wright was briefly sidelined during the Pac-12 semifinals after absorbing an elbow from USC’s Chevez Goodwin, Barthelemy kept CU’s momentum rolling and capped a key 17-0 run by the Buffs with back-to-back 3-pointers. He finished with 42 assists, including four in the NCAA first-round win against Georgetown, with only 22 turnovers.

Clifford and O’Brien didn’t get off the bench nearly as frequently. Once Pac-12 Conference play began, Clifford appeared in only six games the rest of the way, O’Brien four. Both Colorado natives got into the action late in the NCAA Tournament win against Georgetown, with O’Brien recording a pair of late baskets for a season-best four points and Clifford knocking down just his second 3-pointer of the season.

In particular, the departures of Schwartz and Daniels, both bigger wings for the Buffs, will clear competition for playing time for the 6-foot-5 Clifford and 6-foot-7 O’Brien. Also likely to be in the mix for playing time among bigger wings is incoming 6-foot-7 freshman Quincy Allen.

“They got a lot better. That’s the one thing in practice that people don’t see,” Boyle said. “Nique and Luke got much, much better. Much more comfortable. And I’d say Keeshawn too. Keeshawn obviously got a chance to play a little bit. But Keeshawn the last month of the season practice-wise was terrific. He really improved, and I’d put Nique and Luke in that category. It will be live next year. In practice, it’s not always live. But they’re both very, very capable players.”