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Freshman forward Joe Hurlburt (right) could make an impact immediately for the Colorado men’s basketball team. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Freshman forward Joe Hurlburt (right) could make an impact immediately for the Colorado men’s basketball team. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

At some point, Joe Hurlburt is going to be needed. Whether he’s ready for it or not.

Colorado men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle doesn’t usually force his freshmen through the maturation process. Yet he admits he might be trying to expedite that process as Hurlburt goes through his first preseason with the Buffaloes.

One big question mark surrounding the Buffs this season is their lack of size up front after Lawson Lovering, the talented 7-foot-1 center coming off an injury-shortened freshman season. After Lovering, next in line among the returnees, size-wise, is 6-foot-9 junior Tristan da Silva, who averaged just 3.5 rebounds a year ago (albeit while playing alongside Pac-12 rebounding leader Jabari Walker) and whose skills are more in line with those of a point forward. The Buffs will count on a number of athletic wings to pick up the rebounding slack.

Hurlburt — recruited at 6-foot-10 and listed now by the Buffs at 6-foot-11 — could help offset that size gap. But, like most freshmen, the skilled big man is fighting a steep learning curve.

“We need Joe to acclimate as quickly as he can,” Boyle said. “But sometimes you just have to let nature take its course. Joe, he’s going to develop at his own pace. We want to accelerate that as much as we can. But a lot of that is going to be up to Joe. We’re going to continue to challenge him. I’ve probably coached him harder than a lot of freshmen I’ve had over the last five to seven years because we can sure use him. Our front-line depth is a concern for this team. Our size is a concern, especially when we get into Pac-12 play.”

Hurlburt confessed that while growing up in Enderlin, N.D., he was never subjected to the sort of intense, high-level coaching he is getting accustomed to at CU. Hurlburt arrived in Boulder early in the summer, but the intensity has continued to rise with the Nov. 7 opener at home against UC Riverside inching closer.

“College basketball is a big adjustment from high school, so I’ve been taking it a day at a time. Just watching film, trying to pick up on things I have to learn and listening to what the coaches have to say,” Hurlburt said. “I’m taking it all in and trying to get better. Defensively, learning all the different ways to guard certain actions. Offensively, it’s not simple but it’s not too complex. But defensively, there’s a lot of terms you have to learn and we’re just covering them now, so I’m trying to learn.”

Hurlburt ended his prep career as the all-time leader in points, rebounds and assists at his high school, and a Buffs team in need of replacing Walker’s production on the glass could get a boost if Hurlburt grows up in a hurry — he averaged 14.8 rebounds as a senior and is the all-time leading rebounder (1,475) in North Dakota prep basketball history.

Buffs fans can get their first look at Hurlburt and CU’s other newcomers on Saturday morning, when CU hosts its annual Black and Gold scrimmage at the Events Center ahead of the football game against California. Admission is free and the doors open at 8:45 a.m.

“Let me be clear on this — Joe Hurlburt is going to be a great player at Colorado,” Boyle said. “It’s just a matter of when, and how quickly. He’s a smart player. He’s really coachable. But his head is spinning right now. That’s natural. That’s normal. I’m really proud of him for the progress he’s made so far, but there’s no fast forward button for experience.”