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KJ Simpson pushing the envelope for CU Buffs men’s basketball

Future might be now for freshman point guard

University of Colorado Boulder’s KJ Simpson drives on UCLA’s Jules Bernard during the Pac-12 game in Boulder on January 22, 2022. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
University of Colorado Boulder’s KJ Simpson drives on UCLA’s Jules Bernard during the Pac-12 game in Boulder on January 22, 2022. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

KJ Simpson essentially has been tabbed as Colorado’s point guard of the future from the moment he flipped recruiting allegiances from Arizona to the Buffaloes last spring.

Simpson’s recent play might be forcing head coach Tad Boyle to consider if the future has arrived.

The freshman guard was one of the key figures in a stirring CU comeback that fell a little short on Saturday night, as the Buffs dropped a 71-65 decision against No. 9 UCLA. Simpson might be giving Boyle something to debate regarding the starting lineup as CU attempts to get back on track with a demanding run of three road games in six days that begins with Tuesday’s rescheduled date at Oregon (8 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network).

The question would be whether Simpson deserves the starting nod over redshirt sophomore Keeshawn Barthelemy, who has started all 18 games this season. Through the years, Boyle has preached often that defense is his primary consideration when making personnel decisions, and Simpson already has been turned to in recent weeks for the defensive side of late game offense-defense situational substitutions.

Boyle reiterated after Saturday’s loss that Simpson continues to make big strides on that end of the floor.

“I mentioned Nique (Clifford) at Arizona State making a big statement defensively that he was ready to play in the Pac-12 defensively. I think KJ made that (against UCLA) defensively,” Boyle said. “His defensive intensity and his willingness to take a challenge…seven rebounds (against UCLA). He had zero defensive rebounds on Thursday (against USC). He had six (against UCLA).

“When you challenge players and you try to coach players, and you see them trying to do what they’re asked to do, there’s some hope as a coach. So I’ve got hope, I really do. I’ve got belief in this team that we can really get over the hump.”

Offensively, Barthelemy has owned a clear advantage over Simpson through much of the season with his outside shooting touch and low turnover rate. But that gap has dwindled of late.

Although Barthelemy went 2-for-2 on 3-pointers against UCLA, he has shot just .243 (9-for-37) from the arc in CU’s five games against ranked foes, and he owns a .269 3-point mark in the Buffs’ eight Pac-12 games. Barthelemy has sported a low turnover rate, which has been critical for the point guard of an otherwise turnover-prone team, but he had no assists with three turnovers against UCLA. Although Barthelemy’s assist rate also is low (2.5 per game), it was just the fourth time this season Barthelemy has recorded more turnovers than assists.

Barthelemy exited the UCLA game with 15 minutes, 48 seconds remaining and did not return.

Simpson, meanwhile, has reduced his turnover rate lately, posting 13 assists against eight turnovers in four games since returning a one-game absence due to a concussion. He recorded his best assist-to-turnover rate of the season against the Bruins with five assists and only one turnover. Saturday’s effort gave Simpson the team lead in assists per game (2.6) despite averaging 6.2 fewer minutes than Barthelemy.

Since that one-game absence, Simpson is 15-for-15 at the free throw line.

CU’s two losses against the Los Angeles schools didn’t harm the Buffs’ NET ranking, as CU (12-5, 4-4 Pac-12) actually moved up three spots to No. 87 in Sunday’s rankings. But the Buffs are running out of the sort of opportunities that might provide a NET push.

“This is something we can’t dwell on. Obviously we wanted to win both games,” Simpson said. “But we can’t keep looking back in the past. We can learn from it, but we have to clear our minds and just get ready for this away stretch that we’re about to go on. Because it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a battle. We’ve just got to keep our heads high and focus on what we need to get better at.”