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Rooney: Offseason strides key to CU Buffs men’s basketball 2022-23 fortunes

Possible loss of Jabari Walker can be muted by next-level progress

BOULDER,CO, Feb. 3, 2022: University of ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Nique Clifford drives on Oregon’s Jacob Young during Pac-12 play in Boulder on February 3, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

It is going to be a critical offseason.

No doubt, that line could be culled from page one of the “Coach Speak Handbook.” Yet it’s one that nonetheless rings true for the Colorado men’s basketball team.

As Final Four weekend unfolds, it has been less than three weeks since the promising stretch run put together by head coach Tad Boyle’s Buffaloes came to a sudden and disappointing end with a home loss against St. Bonaventure in the first round of the NIT. The roster update in the days since has been easy.

Evan Battey is moving on with his life. Keeshawn Barthelemy is looking for a new home through the transfer portal. And Jabari Walker may or may not be back, depending on a decision that won’t be finalized for weeks, at least.

The remaining underclassmen on the roster are expected to return for the 2022-23 season and will be bolstered by new additions — incoming freshmen Joe Hurlburt and RJ Smith, in addition to at least two reinforcements the Buffs are expected to add during the spring recruiting cycle.

Yet it is those returning underclassmen, most of whom were regular rotation players for the first time during the 2021-22 season, that hold the key to next year’s fortunes. And that holds true regardless of what Walker ultimately decides.

“I think with the uncertainties of who’s coming back in terms of Jabari, it is critical that we have great offseasons for the players that are coming back,” Boyle said. “KJ Simpson. Julian Hammond. Nique Clifford. Luke O’Brien. Tristan da Silva. Lawson Lovering. Along with Quincy (Allen) and Javon (Ruffin), who basically are going to be freshmen. But those other guys who played this season, they’ve got to have great offseasons. And if they do, we’ll be in good shape next year. If they don’t, we’ll take some lumps. This is a capable returning crew, but a lot of work to do in the weight room and certainly in their skill development.”

Every player Boyle listed will need to make significant strides for the Buffs to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth next season. Pardon the pun, but once boiled down, it’s almost incumbent upon three of those returning players — Simpson, Clifford and Lovering — to become consistent, big-time producers for the Buffs.

Lovering, whose season was cut short by a knee injury, is in much of the same boat as Allen and Ruffin, both of whom missed the entire season due to injuries. Lovering at least got 18 games under his belt to mixed reviews, struggling at times with the speed of the Division I game while at times providing a sturdy defensive presence in the paint.

Although a frontcourt player certainly is on the radar of Boyle and his staff in terms of spring additions, the 7-foot-1 Lovering likely will be the only true five-spot player on the roster. Lovering has the potential to be a unique difference-maker on both ends of the floor. The Buffs need him to be in order to compete in the Pac-12 and for an NCAA tourney spot.

Clifford took over a starting role during the second half of the season following Elijah Parquet’s season ending foot injury and teased the Buffs with his vast potential. At 6-foot-6, Clifford has the ability to be a harassing, lockdown defender, as well as a three-level scorer offensively. Too often, however, Clifford was a non-factor. He could be electric, like during a 14-point, seven-rebound showing in a road win at Stanford. Yet Clifford also followed a 5-for-13 shooting performance in two Pac-12 tournament games with a 1-for-7 game in the NIT loss against St. Bonaventure.

Inconsistent play is in no way unusual for a young player spending his first season in the rotation. If Clifford starts bringing it every night as a junior, he has All-Pac-12 potential.

And finally, with Barthelemy out of the picture, Simpson is in line to take over as the Buffs’ leading point guard. On a low-assist team, Simpson led the Buffs with 2.7 per game. He needs to sharpen his outside shooting touch (.254 on 3-pointers) and lower his turnover rate of 2.2 per game. But with Battey gone, Simpson owns the temperament to fill the leadership void, and the Buffs are in need of the next generation of floor general to step forward.

Certainly none of that is to say the Buffs can’t use improved play from da Silva, already a jack-of-all-trades contributor in the starting lineup. Or from role players like Hammond and O’Brien. Or uncover the absent, so far, talents of Allen or Ruffin.

But if the Buffs get next-level improvement from Lovering, Clifford and Simpson, the specter of Walker’s possible loss dims considerably.

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