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Joe Hurlburt, RJ Smith putting in the work in redshirt season for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Colorado's Joel Hurlburt works during a pregame warmup. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Colorado’s Joel Hurlburt works during a pregame warmup. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

The point in the calendar when it remained reasonable to possibly pull the redshirts from freshmen Joe Hurlburt and RJ Smith passed a long time ago.

Still, as a battered Colorado men’s basketball team struggles toward the conclusion of the regular season, the Buffaloes could use the rookies’ help right now.

With a longer work week ahead of Saturday’s regular season finale at home against Utah (3:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network), CU head coach Tad Boyle recently offered a progress report on the Buffs’ two freshmen. Relegated to a developmental season with what at the outset of the year was a deep rotation, Hurlburt and Smith believe they have made the most of their practice time.

As does Boyle.

“I think Joe Hurlburt is a totally different player than he was two months ago,” Boyle said. “He’s kind of overcome the frustrations of getting physically beaten up every day. Because he was getting physically beaten up, whether it was J’Vonne Hadley or Lawson (Lovering) or Tristan (da Silva) or whoever he was going against. Now, he’s fought back. He’s fought through it. He shoots the ball well for us. It’s a big, big offseason for him in the weight room. We could be using him probably in spots right now, but it’s not worth burning his redshirt.

“But I like the progress he’s made. I think being on the scout squad for Joe has been really helpful, just mentally understanding the concepts of the college game, the terminology. Because a lot of that doesn’t come naturally for him. And RJ, I’m very, very encouraged by RJ and his ability to shoot the ball. He can score it, he can handle it, he can shoot it. He’s strong. He’s physical. It’s going to be interesting how much they play next year.”

Smith, a 6-foot-3 guard, started slowly to begin the preseason due to a knee injury suffered at the end of his high school season a year ago. Facing an overload of veterans at the two-guard spot — Jalen Gabbidon, Ethan Wright, Nique Clifford, and even point guards KJ Simpson and Julian Hammond III when both are on the floor — Smith has used the redshirt season to get healthy and get up to speed with an eye on cracking the 2023-24 rotation.

Gabbidon and Ruffin have missed a combined 14 games this season, including last week’s losses against USC and No. 4 UCLA. Clifford and Wright have struggled to shoot consistently all season. In the background, Smith says his confidence has grown.

“I came back late in October, but I’ve seen a huge jump in my game,” Smith said. “I feel more confident. I’m a lot stronger, faster. I definitely feel like this extra year helped. If I didn’t have this year, I wouldn’t be as strong or faster like I am now. I’m more confident with the pace and the level of speed of the game.”

The 6-foot-11 Hurlburt also could be of service right now, given Hadley’s season-ending injury suffered on Feb. 2 against California and the uncertain status of the 6-foot-9 da Silva, who suffered an ankle injury late in Sunday’s loss against UCLA. Like most young big men, Hurlburt’s progress has been more deliberate. Yet if he puts together a strong offseason, Hurlburt has a chance to be a stronger rebounder than da Silva and a better shooter than Lovering.

“I think it’s gone pretty good,” Hurlburt said. “I think just a lot of it at the beginning was kind of some rookie mistakes. Just learning some positions, stuff on defense and things like that. A lot of it also is just me believing in myself. It’s definitely slowed down a lot. There’s still a lot to learn, but it’s nothing close to what it was back at the start of the season.”