Colorado center Bri Watts, left and new women’s basketball head coach JR Payne share a laugh at Tuesday’s workout, the first full-squad
Colorado center Bri Watts, left and new women's basketball head coach JR Payne share a laugh at Tuesday's workout, the first full-squad gathering since Payne accepted the position. Go to for more photos. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

Whenever Kennedy Leonard encounters one of her new basketball coaches — and that's been happening a lot lately — she's asked how her family is doing, or how she's doing in school.

"You can tell she really cares about us — all of them do," said Leonard, who recently completed her freshman season with the Colorado women's basketball team. "It's a different kind of feel, a positive feel."

CU head coach JR Payne has been on the job about two weeks, and in that time she has started to build a solid foundation with her players, who, by most accounts, are learning to like and trust their new leader.

"It's awesome," said forward Haley Smith, who will be a senior next season. "Her focus is on family and us having good relationships, so she's really made a point that that's something she wants to work on with all of us, having that positive relationship off the court so that things translate really well onto the court."

Payne, her top assistant — and husband — Toriano Towns and newly announced assistant Shandrika Lee have all come to CU after working together at Santa Clara the past two seasons.

The three coaches and all 11 Buffs were on the court together Tuesday. It was their first workout as a complete group, although they've had several group workouts over the past week.


"The first few weeks you're really just trying to get to know each other a little bit," Payne said. "We're not talking really too big of a picture with them or coming in with any heavy rules and regulations and things like that. We're really just trying to get to know everybody for now."

Payne said she's enjoying watching the players in action and getting a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. It's way too early to implement any of her schemes, but she said these workouts are designed to figure out how to use the players' strengths to design a scheme that will work for them.

The Buffs are coming off a 7-23 season, but Payne said she can already tell she's got a team she can work with and build with.

"My overall impression is just that we work hard already," she said. "People are playing hard."

Part of that could be the excitement of getting on the court, and part could be the players' intention to make a good impression on the new coaches.

"Definitely everybody is trying to show what they can do and what they can do with the team," Leonard said.

Smith said it's been a smooth transition to this point and, as a veteran leader, she'll work to make sure it continues to be a smooth transition.

"I think it's really important just for leadership on the team to completely buy in and preach the same thing the coaches are preaching," Smith said.

To this point, the players like what Payne and her staff are preaching, and Leonard said it helps that team chemistry was already strong.

"I think it makes it easier for coach JR, because we're already a team and get along well together, so she can just come in and try to fix the basketball part of it, as opposed to the whole team chemistry," Leonard said.

With any coaching transition, there's a risk of players transferring out, but Leonard said she doesn't believe anyone has that mindset.

"Everybody is here for a reason," she said. "I think all of us still have passion here (at Colorado), I think all of us are here for the long run, and we'll see how it goes."


Payne said she is still looking at various candidates to fill vacancies for an assistant coach, director of operations and video coordinator. ... A report two weeks ago said former Colorado Christian head coach Tim Hays would be joining Payne's staff, but Payne said, "Someone jumped the gun on that." ... Payne has two open scholarships for this next season said "we're very close" to filling those spots. She said the staff is looking at high school and junior college players as well as transfers. "We're figuring out who is going to be able to come in and impact right away," she said. ... Later this week, players are planning to give the coaches a campus tour.

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.