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Rooney: CU Buffs hope to replicate grad transfer magic with Mason Faulkner

Addition from Western Carolina fills big void on 2021-22 roster

Mason Faulkner grew up in Kentucky. He began his collegiate career in his home state, played his lone NCAA Tournament game in Indiana, and by his own admission has rarely strayed west of the Mississippi River.

That is all about to change.

“I’ve never really been left of Kentucky on the states map,” Faulkner said. “It’s definitely going to be an adjustment, but I’m excited and ready to get to work.”

The latest addition to the Colorado men’s basketball team actually has played two games west of the Mississippi — once as a true freshman with Northern Kentucky during the 2016-17 season, and again the following season when Northern Kentucky visited Texas A&M. Faulkner, who made it official with CU on Friday as a graduate transfer from Western Carolina, may have made a future-altering impression in that 2016-17 game.

Faulkner’s westward journey across the Mississippi River early in the 2016-17 season occurred when his Northern Kentucky squad visited Southeast Missouri State, which isn’t much further than a wild air ball away from the river’s western banks. Faulkner came off the bench to contribute four points, seven rebounds, and four assists as Northern Kentucky thumped a SEMSU squad coached by current CU assistant Rick Ray.

The Buffs struck pay dirt last year when they welcomed the program’s first graduate transfer, Jeriah Horne, into the mix. Integrating Faulkner into the rotation will be a bigger challenge this time around for Ray, head coach Tad Boyle, and the remainder of the staff, though hardly an indomitable one.

Before Faulkner gets acquainted with venues like Pauley Pavilion and the McKale Center, he first must get to know the new teammates taking part in an offseason rotation overhaul. Last year, Horne previously had established a friendship with point guard McKinley Wright IV. The Buffs featured a veteran rotation almost tailor-made for the addition of a selfless, versatile player willing to accept his role.

Like Horne, Faulkner is set to play for his third Division I team. Unlike Horne, Faulkner joins a mix that, beyond Evan Battey and Eli Parquet, is light on experience. The Buffs have plenty of young talent dotting the current and on the way this summer with a top-20 recruiting class. Nevertheless, CU will go into the 2021-22 season with holes to fill.

CU loses three of its top four scorers and five of its top seven. Departed seniors Wright, Horne, D’Shawn Schwartz, Dallas Walton and Maddox Daniels accounted for about 62 percent of the Buffs’ scoring production. Horne led the Buffs in rebounding and Wright ranked third, in addition to the latter’s almost irreplaceable role in running CU’s offense.

Faulkner, like Wright, is a superb rebounder despite his status as a 6-foot-1 guard, averaging 5.8 boards and 5.5 assists over his two seasons at Western Carolina. How well those numbers translate to the Pac-12 will be a key component of the Buffs’ success. Faulkner was a clutch performer at Western Carolina, hitting several critical, last-minute shots. He has played in the NCAA Tournament, recording four rebounds, three points, and two assists in 21 minutes off the bench in Northern Kentucky’s 2017 first-round loss against Kentucky.

If Faulkner’s addition ultimately is as seamless and productive as Horne’s, he may very well play in the NCAA Tournament once again at the end of his extra season of eligibility.

“We were looking for someone who could bring a little experience to our team next year,” Boyle said. “We wanted somebody who can score the ball. We lost a lot of scoring. Mason Faulkner checked all those boxes and I really enjoyed him and his family as we got to know him. He fits the character piece that we’re always looking for.

“He gives us depth in the backcourt. A guy who can play with the ball in his hands, without the ball in his hands. He can play with Keeshawn (Barthelemy). He can play with Nique Clifford. He can play obviously with Eli and will give us an opportunity to go with a three-guard lineup at times. And he’s a good rebounder, like McKinley was. He fits all the bills.”