By his recollection, KJ Simpson had never previously missed a game in his basketball career.
After a brief stint on the sideline last week for the Colorado men’s team, Simpson is expected to be back in the rotation for the Buffaloes on Thursday night at No. 6 Arizona (9 p.m. MT, FS1). It is unlikely to be a smooth transition back into the action for Simpson, who understands a warm welcome with a ton of positive energy raining down probably isn’t the reaction in store for him at the McKale Center.
Not long ago, Simpson was set to begin his collegiate career with the Wildcats. Instead, he will just be passing through Tucson with the Buffs, who are seeking their first win at Arizona since joining the Pac-12 Conference.
“I’m expecting anything,” Simpson said. “They’re loud over there, too. We’ve got to look at every opponent like it’s any other team, but obviously they’re ranked for a reason. But we’re a good team and we feel like we have some pieces and we’re up there as well.
“It’s going to be a battle down there. It’s going to be a war, it’s going to be a little rowdy. But we like that.”
Simpson originally signed with Arizona to be part of the Wildcats’ 2022 recruiting class. Yet after Sean Miller’s 12-year run at UA’s leader ended following the 2020-21 season, Simpson opted to re-open his recruiting. That opened the door for the Buffs, who were a close second in the drive to land Simpson the first time.
Not only does the McKale Center tend to be the most heavily-attended venue in the Pac-12, but Wildcats fans also tend to be among the most knowledgeable and vocal in the league. That combination likely isn’t going to be a fun one for a player who ultimately chose to take his talents to Boulder.
“I’m sure he’s expecting a hostile environment,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “But look, they’re hostile to all Buffs. Every time we go down there, they don’t treat the visiting team very kindly. Nor should they. that’s just part of it.
“KJ I’m sure will have some extra Arizona fans trying to get in his head and in his ear. But he’s just got to play. Just play his game. KJ is a tough kid who’s not afraid of the moment.”
Last week, Simpson suffered a concussion late in the first half of the Buffs’ win against Washington State, and he remained sidelined for CU’s win against UW. Fellow rookie guard Julian Hammond III more than filled the void, winning the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Week honor after recording five rebounds, four assists, and four steals against WSU before following that performance with 14 points against UW behind a 4-for-4 effort from 3-point range.
Simpson has shown flashes of his explosive offensive potential, and he posted four assists in two consecutive games prior to his early departure against WSU. However, since scoring 12 points during a home win against Stanford on Nov. 28, Simpson will enter the Arizona game having shot just 9-for-32 (.281) in the past five-plus games.
Given his absence against UW and the quick exit against WSU, Simpson is even rustier than his teammates when it comes to live competition, as the home win against Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 18 remains his only full game played over the past month.
“It was a little frustrating, not being out there with my guys,” Simpson said. “Whenever I had the opportunity to, I’d just go to whoever I could to give them encouragement. Try to give energy on the bench. Just do whatever I can since I couldn’t be out there on the floor.”
Big time ingredients
Given Arizona is one of the top teams in the nation on offense, defense, and on the glass, Boyle said the keys to CU’s possible success at UA will be less about taking something particular away from the Wildcats than it will be about the Buffs having multiple players turn in big nights.
“We’re going to need everybody on our team to play well,” Boyle said. “They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to play a perfect game. But we have to have multiple guys play well to beat Arizona. Because you don’t beat them with one or two weapons. You’ve got to beat them with five, six, seven guys that are really efficient. Handling their pressure that they throw at you defensively, being strong with the ball, cutting hard, spacing the floor…we have to do everything, and we have to take them out of transition. Because makes or misses, they sprint it up the floor.”
The Buffs’ 11-3 mark is tied for the third-best 14-game mark in Boyle’s 12 seasons at CU. The Buffs also were 11-3 last year and in 2015-16, and were 12-2 in 2019-20 and 2013-14…CU has played exactly 100 conference road games under Boyle, compiling a 30-70 record (.300)…Buffs sophomore Nique Clifford is averaging 6.1 points and 4.9 rebounds, but over the past three games he has averaged 9.0 points and 6.0 rebounds…CU senior Evan Battey enjoyed a solid game at Arizona last year, going 5-for-8 from the floor and 7-for-8 at the free throw line with 18 points. In two games against UA last year, Battey went 12-for-17 while averaging 19.5 points…Cindy Brunson and Corey Williams will be on the call for FS1…Arizona began Thursday at No. 2 in the NET rankings and No. 10 at KenPom.com. CU is No. 95 in the NET and No. 80 at KenPom.