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Men's basketball: Starters not flinching from heavy workloads for CU Buffs

Mar. 10—There weren't any wobbly legs or shortness of breath. Despite it being a sprint to the finish, with a select few players forced to carry heavy burdens, the Colorado Buffaloes didn't flinch.

Not long after the CU men's basketball team notched the program's first six-game win streak to close a regular season in 69 years, guard KJ Simpson, looking as if he was ready for another 40 minutes even after sitting out a total of 1 minute, 21 seconds during two wins in Oregon, said the stamina for the last push hasn't been forged by the trails of the season.

It began last summer, putting time and sweat in the gym and weight room.

The work is starting to pay off for the Buffs, who completed a sweep of their final Pac-12 Conference regular season road trip on Saturday at Oregon State. Next up is the final appearance in the Pac-12 tournament, which tips off for the third-seeded Buffs on Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

CU (22-9, 13-7 Pac-12) will play either sixth-seeded Utah or 11th-seeded Arizona State, who play in the final first-round game on Wednesday.

"No one was there in the summer. We all put in the hours. We all put in the work," CU guard KJ Simpson said. "Credit to our strength coach Steve Englehart. He's the best strength coach in the nation and one of the main reasons why I came here. I know a lot of the guys also came here for him. He just does a great job of getting everything that we need. Helping us stay in shape, helping us stay conditioned for moments like this. Because when guys go down, it's up to the next person to step up. And everyone's ready thanks to Steve."

No player has logged more minutes in Pac-12 games than Simpson, who hasn't played fewer than 35 minutes in the past 12 games. Simpson has played at least 38 minutes in each of the past four games, including back-to-back 40-minute outings in the home finale against Stanford and at Oregon.

Two teammates aren't far behind, with J'Vonne Hadley (36.4) and Tristan da Silva (35.4) ranking second and fourth, respectively, in average minutes in league play. It will be the third time in four Pac-12 tourneys the Buffs have earned a first-round bye, yet this one likely will be the most welcome.

"Tournament basketball is different," CU head coach Tad Boyle said. "Think about this weekend. We played Oregon on Thursday and had a pretty quick turnaround with an afternoon game on Saturday. We did absolutely nothing (Friday) physically, in terms of the heavy-minute guys. It was all recover. Well, guess what? You get into tournament play and it's back-to-back-to-back. Our bench becomes more important in Pac-12 tournament play than it does in the regular season. Not to stay it's not important. It was important Thursday. It was important (at Oregon State). I think those young guys are really growing up."

The heavy workload, of course, has been necessitated by the Buffs' ongoing injury issues, with the status of Cody Williams (ankle) and Julian Hammond III (knee) still uncertain heading into the postseason. Still, although CU has played just 14 games with all of its top seven rotation players, the win streak has put the Buffs in a more favorable position in the NCAA Tournament picture.

The Buffs have won 22 regular season games for the first time in program history. Now the challenge is to pack that momentum for Vegas.

"This team is deeper than what everyone thinks and I think we showed it in this win streak," Simpson said. "There's been some special teams, special talents, that have been part of this program. I'm just happy to be a part of this team and this opportunity ahead to say we're one of the best in Colorado history."