The CU men’s basketball team saw their season end on Sunday night in Boulder with an 81-69 loss to the Utah Valley Wolverines in the second round of the NIT tournament. The Buffaloes end their 2022-23 season with an 18-17 record overall and 8-12 in conference play, finishing eighth in the Pac-12 standings.
Colorado faced many struggles throughout a season where they finished only one game above .500. On the offensive end, CU failed to hold onto the ball and limit turnovers, as they finished averaging 13.2 per game, ranking in the bottom hundred of the 352 division one college basketball programs. The Buffs also found scoring the ball difficult. The offense scored an average of 69.8 points per game on only 43.4% shooting, with statistics ranking seventh in the Pac-12 and below average when compared nationally. CU failed to succeed from the free throw line, shooting a combined 69% and only making 32% of their three-pointers, ending tenth and eighth in the Pac-12 ranks, respectively.
Despite their pains on the offensive side, Colorado proved themselves as one of the strongest defensive teams in the conference. The Buffs played a resilient defense style, staying tight on screens, creating pressure and forcing their opponents to make mistakes. This all helped Tad Boyle and his team to play low-scoring, gritty games all season. CU finished first overall in the Pac-12 in defensive rebound percentage at 75% while also finishing second in the conference in steals with 7.5 per game, both top 80 in the country.
After an up-and-down start with losses to Grambling State and UMass and wins against top 25-ranked Tennessee and Texas A&M, Colorado couldn’t find a consistent groove all year. The Buffs pulled a five-game win streak together in December, but multiple injuries and a lack of available players derailed their success. They finished losing nine of their last 14 games of the regular season, including two contests against top-ranked UCLA in which CU was ahead at halftime but ended up losing.
“Losing is losing, and the feeling is the same in your stomach and just your disgust and frustration and anger, whatever you want to call it, the litany of emotions,” Tad Boyle said after the Buffs’ four-point loss to the Bruins late in the season. “We could have folded our tents and felt sorry for ourselves, and we didn’t do that. The guys kept fighting and just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch.”
Though finishing with 18-17 records may be underwhelming for many Buffs fans, the individual progress players made throughout the season was undoubtedly a positive point for the program.
The NBA hopefuls
Tristan da Silva played in all 35 games for CU and led the team in total scoring, averaging 15.9 points per game, finishing sixth overall in the Pac-12 conference. Da Silva also averaged 4.8 rebounds per game, 1.3 assists, and steals, as well as shooting 49.6% from the field and 39.4% from three. His efforts landed him on the all-Pac-12 first team. He most recently announced his plan to explore his potential in the NBA draft without representation, allowing him to return to CU with two more years of eligibility.
“Yeah, I feel like I should definitely test the waters, see how it goes and get some feedback,” Da Silva said after the loss to Utah Valley. “That doesn’t tie me to anything. That’s kind of a process for the summer, and I haven’t made a final decision yet.”
Though plagued by injury and sickness in the season’s final stretch, K.J. Simpson was the heart of the Buffaloes. The sophomore point guard averaged 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.5 steals in his 29 games for CU this season. Simpson’s extreme confidence was perfect as he was coming into a more prominent role this season, doubling almost all of his stats from the previous year. Simpson’s all-around efforts helped him finish on the all-Pac-12 second team and have a reputation as one of the best point guards in the country, as the sophomore also looks to gauge his potential in the upcoming NBA draft.
“Tristan is going to test the waters and get his feedback from the NBA. My guess is K.J. might do the same, which is fine,” Tad Boyle said on Sunday night. “We’ll see what that is and then we move forward.”
Other key players
Along with Simpson and da Silva, CU had many players who made impacts on a nightly basis. Transfer J’Vonne Hadley only played 22 games due to a hand injury, but the junior averaged 8 points, 1.3 assists, and a team-high 5.9 rebounds per game and was the team’s leading man in the paint up until his injury.
Luke O’Brien saw perhaps the biggest jump out of any players on the CU roster. As a 6’8″ forward who can run and jump and use his strength to grab rebounds and back down defenders, O’Brien saw much more success later in the season once he started playing more down low with the big men. Finishing the season with averages of 6.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, O’Brien ramped up his play as the season progressed, averaging just about 10 points and ten rebounds in the final eight games.
Julian Hammond III also brought significant contributions coming off the bench for most games this year for Colorado. Once Simpson went out, Hammond stepped up into the leadership role, averaging 16.6 points, 4.3 assists, and 3.3 rebounds in the final three games of the regular season, much ahead of his season stats of seven points and two rebounds and assists per game.
Though only here for the year, Ivy League transfers Ethan Wright and Jalen Gabbidon were crucial keys in locker room leadership, three-point shooting, and lockdown defense for the Buffs this season. As the year went on, Wright became a heavily relied-upon shooter, averaging 12.5 points in the season’s final five games, much higher than his average of 4.3 points per game. Jalen Gabbidon also suffered from multiple injuries, but the transfer from Yale proved to be a defensive leader for CU, locking down opposing point guards, forcing mistakes, and stealing any pass coming through the paint. Both Wright and Gabbidon proved to be strong, experienced leaders for an overall very young team, making a significant impact during their one year in Boulder.
“These guys mean so much to me. This program, [and] this school, I’ve had a great experience here,” Wright said. “These are guys that I’m going to have around for the rest of my life.”
Limited to only 24 games due to injury, Javon Ruffin showed great potential as a shooter for Colorado in the future. After redshirting last season, Ruffin averaged six points and 2.4 rebounds in 15 minutes a game while also second in three-point shooting right behind da Silva at 35.8% and first on the team in free throws at 87.5%.
The 2023-24 outlook
Once the season ended, news broke of a few Buffaloes entering the transfer portal. Those entering the portal are Nique Clifford, Lawson Lovering, Quincy Allen, Armondo Miller Jr. and Greg Gerhardt. Clifford and Lovering combined to only miss one game but seemed unable to find a rhythm and role within the team. Clifford averaged six points and four rebounds on 37% shooting, while Lovering had 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds as the one seven-footer on the roster. Allen played in 11 games this year but saw little success shooting the ball and finding consistent playing time. Miller only played six minutes throughout the season, and Gerhardt never saw the floor.
“There is not a finer young man, not a finer human being that I’ve ever coached than Nique Clifford,” Boyle said about one of his players potentially leaving. “He’s given everything in his power to this program and to our coaching staff and to his teammates. Nique wasn’t a good teammate, he was a great teammate.”
Looking forward to the 2023-24 season, Tad Boyle and the Buffaloes have one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country. Led by five-star and All-American Cody Williams from Gilbert, Arizona, the 6’8″ forward is considered one of the top 10 players in the country and is currently set to be the top draft pick in the 2024 NBA draft. Williams is the highest touted player recruited to Colorado under Tad Boyle and also expects to be CU’s first one-and-done player to go straight into the NBA.
“It’s a testament I think to our hard work and my assistant coaches and how hard they work every single day, in recruiting,” Boyle said. “It’s a testament to Cody Williams and his family to look for the best fit.”
Along with Williams is Colorado’s Assane Diop, a four-star center currently ranked top 100 in the country and top 10 in his position. Courtney Anderson is also bringing his talents to CU, as the three-star shooting guard from Los Angeles turned down offers from other Pac-12 schools like Cal and Arizona State.
With at least four players from this year’s rotation — Ethan Wright, Jalen Gabbidon, Nique Clifford and Lawson Lovering — departing Boulder, there will be significant changes to the team last seen on Sunday night.
With the potential return of Tristan da Silva and K.J. Simpson after their draft consideration, as well as J’Vonne Hadley, Luke O’Brien, Julian Hammond III, Javon Ruffin and the group of recruits, Colorado has a very high ceiling for next season. They will still be a young and athletic team. However, that team will now be led by players who have experience under Tad Boyle and in the Pac-12, which hopefully will be the key to success and a deep run in March.