Last week’s trip through Arizona pushed the Colorado men’s basketball team past the midway point of the season in terms of games played.
At the outset of the season, the Buffaloes were a team in need of young players being ready to take over prominent roles. As the Buffs get ready to begin a critical homestand Thursday evening against No. 16 USC (5:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network), those roles have largely been cemented.
Head coach Tad Boyle has used the same starting lineup in all 16 games — sophomores Jabari Walker, Keeshawn Barthelemy and Tristan da Silva alongside seniors Evan Battey and Elijah Parquet. And off the bench, it is sophomores Nique Clifford and Luke O’Brien, along with freshman KJ Simpson, who are doing most of the heavy lifting.
“I think (the bench players) are getting used to it, and they’re growing up,” Boyle said. “Nique, he made unbelievable strides in the Arizona State game in terms of his defense. We know he’s been rebounding the ball well all year. And KJ is coming in and knows what’s expected of him now. And Luke, they’re all growing up. They’re all understanding what it takes to win, but also understanding what it takes to lose.”
Simpson enjoyed a huge night at Arizona last week after coming off a one-game injury hiatus, scoring a season-high 17 points with four assists against the team that originally signed him out of high school. And O’Brien of late has provided productive, all-around minutes for the Buffs.
Yet the one steady presence off the bench throughout the season has been Clifford, whose consistent production has taken a few steps forward in recent weeks.
The talented 6-foot-6 wing from Colorado Springs goes into the USC showdown averaging 6.2 points and 5.1 rebounds, which ranks second on the team. Although he is shooting just .310 from 3-point range, Clifford is shooting .453 overall. All those numbers are trending upward.
Over the past five games, Clifford has averaged 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. During that span he has shot 50% overall (15-for-30) while going 4-for-10 on 3-pointers. In six Pac-12 games, Clifford has shot .455 while averaging an even 7.0 points.
Clifford says part of his recent surge can be attributed simply to greater comfort on the floor. Although he appeared in 14 games last season as a true freshman, he surpassed the 57 minutes he played last year within the first two games of the season.
“It’s definitely good to know your role as the season goes on,” Clifford said. “I’m still a young guy, so I’m still learning, too. But it’s midseason, so I’ve got to know my role and be able to play my best when my name is called. I just try to take pride in being that guy off the bench to bring energy and rebound, defend, and make smart plays on offense.
“I just feel more comfortable out there. I think that’s what’s going on with my play. I’m starting to feel more comfortable out there and I’m just seeing the game differently. It’s starting to slow down a little bit, but it takes time for sure.”