Pat Rooney: 3 extra points (March 4, 2024)

Mar. 4—BuffZone writer Pat Rooney discusses three topics surrounding CU Buffs basketball as the men's team gets ready for a key showdown at Oregon while the women look to regroup and make noise at the Pac-12 tournament.

The case for KJ

The CU men's basketball team hasn't had a player of the year honoree since joining the Pac-12. The Buffaloes didn't have one after the Big Eight turned into the Big 12, or even for decades before that. The last and only conference player of the year winner in CU men's basketball history is Cliff Meely, who won the award in the Big Eight in 1969 and again as the co-winner in 1971.

KJ Simpson has a chance to end that drought. If the Pac-12 coaches have paid attention, he should.

Simpson's all-time season continued on Sunday, as he went 5-for-9 on 3-pointers with 22 points and seven assists in the Buffaloes' 81-71 win against Stanford in the regular season home finale. It likely has turned into a two-man race for the Pac-12's final men's basketball player of the year honor between Simpson and Arizona's Caleb Love. Love has been impressive in reviving his career in Tucson, but no player in the league has had a bigger impact than Simpson.

The numbers, as always, can be debated. Love owns a light edge in scoring average in Pac-12 games (21.2 for Love, 19.9 for Simpson), but Simpson's overall scoring average (also 19.9) edges Love's 19.4 (Arizona did play a more difficult nonconference slate). Simpson also owns better overall numbers in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage (in 31 more attempts), assists per game, rebounds per game, and assist-to-turnover rate.

Moreover, Simpson has carried the Buffs in a way Love hasn't had to at Arizona. With Tristan da Silva and Cody Williams sidelined for the opening weekend of Pac-12 play, Simpson got the Buffs off to a 2-0 start with 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists against Washington before posting a career-high 34 points in what remains CU's best win of the season against Washington State. Simpson scored 19 of his 30 points over the final 7 minutes, 52 seconds of regulation plus the two overtimes of a Feb. 17 win at USC that started the ongoing four-game win streak (he also provided the drive-and-dish to Luke O'Brien at the end of regulation that kept the Buffs alive).

Arizona has essentially used the same starting lineup and rotation for all 29 games, which is no fault of Love's, but he has had much more consistent help with Pelle Larsson, Oumar Ballo, Keshad Johnson, Kylan Boswell and Motiejus Krivas all playing every game.

Critics might say Simpson struggled against the top team in the league, Arizona. And they'd be right (a combined 12-for-33, with a career-high eight assists in Tucson). But his duds have been few and far between, and Love also has had his sup-par moments (such as a 1-for-6 night from long range in a Dec. 31 loss at Stanford).

Simpson has another chance to state his case when the Buffs visit Oregon in a key showdown on Thursday night.

Top four in sight

Of course, the Buffs' primary goal is to land in the NCAA Tournament. At No. 30 in Monday's NET rankings, that quest is still alive heading into another must-win matchup at Oregon. However, it will take an unlikely series of events for the Buffs to fall out of a top four spot in the Pac-12 standings, which comes with a first-round bye at the conference tournament next week in Las Vegas.

First and foremost, the Buffs can secure third-place (and give the tourney resume a little jolt) with a victory on Thursday. With a loss at Oregon, CU would still finish fourth with a win on Saturday at Oregon State. Yet even if the Buffs go 0-2 in Oregon, they could still finish fourth with at least one loss by Utah, which is on the same trip as CU, as well as UCLA, which hosts No. 5 Arizona on Thursday before finishing against Arizona State.

Vegas gamble

Strange as it seems, the CU men can still back their way into a top-four spot while the women, a fixture in the national top 10 for the bulk of the season, have been relegated to the No. 5 seed as the Pac-12 women's tournament tips off on Wednesday in Vegas.

I've noted in this space previously a few late dents into the Buffs' record and final slot in the standings probably was inevitable, given a late-season run of road games at nationally-ranked Utah, USC and UCLA. However, collapsing down the stretch against Washington State on senior day on Saturday was a head-scratcher. CU doesn't have to worry about making the tourney, but the goal to be a top-16 seed (and a host site) for the first and second rounds will now require getting at least one but probably two wins in Vegas.