Until the past two weeks, Julian Hammond III had played more than 30 minutes in a game just once.
That occurred on Jan. 5, when Hammond made a spot start for KJ Simpson against Oregon and responded with a then-career-high 16 points in 32 minutes.
Tasked with replacing the mono-stricken Simpson since the final week of the regular season, Hammond has played at least 35 minutes in the starting lineup the past four games, including a career-high 37 minutes in Tuesday’s NIT first-round win against Seton Hall. The workload hasn’t been a burden, as Hammond has put together the best stretch of his two-year collegiate career.
“I know what I can do, but it does feel different to go out there and show it,” Hammond said. “I feel more comfortable, I’d say. I’m more experienced and I know when I can get off my shots and stuff like that. Every game matters, but the deeper you go the important each game is.”
As the Buffs get set to host Utah Valley on Sunday night in the second round of the NIT (7:30 p.m., ESPNU), Hammond has been one of the sparks in a run of three wins in four games.
In that span, Hammond has shot .512 overall (22-for-43) and 5-for-11 on 3-pointers while averaging 15.0 points and 4.5 assists. He’s posted 18 assists against just six turnovers in those four games. Prior to this run in the starting lineup, Hammond sported an assist-to-turnover rate of 1.02 (51 assists, 50 turnovers). In the regular season finale against Utah that began Hammond’s four-game hot streak, he recorded a career-high five steals.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned as a coach. The guys that really playing the heavy minutes, they’re not playing the heavy minutes because they’re not capable. It’s just sometimes a numbers game,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “And when they get their chance, they make the most of it. And that’s exactly what Julian’s done.”
Nique Clifford has hit another rut in what has been a challenging season.
Clifford recorded the first double-double of his career in a victorious regular season finale against Utah with 14 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. In the three games since, however, Clifford has scored just seven points total while going 2-for-13 overall and 1-for-4 on 3-pointers. Clifford also has just one assists against nine turnovers in those three games, and his season shooting percentages have dipped to .373 overall and .288 on 3-pointers. Clifford shot .453 overall and .400 from the arc a year ago.
“I’m just going to use the offseason to become a better player in all aspects of my game,” Clifford said. “It’s been a little of the mental side of it. I know I can knock down shots. I’ve just got to go out and do it. It’s definitely a mental thing. I’ve just got to stay locked in, and when I get the shots I’ve got to make them count.”
Utah Valley and the Buffs have faced three common opponents this season in Oregon, Boise State and Southern Utah. CU split its two Pac-12 games against Oregon but the Wolverines won in Eugene on Dec. 20. CU defeated Southern Utah at home on Dec. 21 while Utah Valley lost two of three against the Thunderbirds, including in the WAC semifinals. Both teams lost to Boise State — Utah Valley on the road on Nov. 26, and the Buffs on Nov. 20 in Myrtle Beach.
CU forward J’Vonne Hadley, who suffered a season-ending right hand/finger injury on Feb. 2, had his cast removed this week. Boyle said Hadley should be ready for summer workouts. … Utah Valley has won a program-record 11 true road games. … CU has won six of seven NIT home games under Boyle. … Utah Valley has played in the NIT just once previously, losing to California in the first round in 2014. … The Wolverines are just 4-10 all-time against Pac-12 teams but won at Oregon on Dec. 20. … Utah Valley shot a solid .472 in its first-round win against New Mexico on Wednesday, but that actually was the Wolverines’ lowest mark in the past six games. Utah Valley has shot .531 over the past six games. … Roxy Bernstein and Noah Savage will handle the broadcast on ESPNU.