CU women's basketball preview: Arizona
MATCHUP: Arizona Wildcats (9-4, 0-2 Pac-12) at Colorado Buffaloes (10-3, 0-2)
GAME TIME: Friday, 7 p.m., Coors Events Center in Boulder
BROADCAST: TV - None (online stream). Radio - ESPN 1600 AM
COACHES: Colorado - JR Payne, 1st season (10-3 at CU; 111-116 career). Arizona - Adia Barnes, 1st season (9-4 at Arizona at career).
LEADERS: Colorado - Scoring: G Kennedy Leonard, So., 18.5 ppg; Rebounding: C Zoe Correal, Jr., 5.8 rpg; Assists: Leonard, 5.7 apg. Arizona - Scoring: F LaBrittney Jones, Sr., 14.8 ppg; Rebounding: Jones, 7.2 rpg; Assists: G Lucia Alonso, Fr., 3.2 apg.
NOTABLE: CU leads the series with the Wildcats, 14-4, including 8-1 in Boulder. The Buffs are 8-1 against Arizona since joining the Pac-12. ... In the preseason coaches' poll, CU was picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12, while Arizona was picked to finish 12th. ... CU is averaging 79.3 points per game this season (26th nationally), a major improvement from the 61.9 average (218th) of a year ago. ... A strong start has been key for the Buffs. They are 10-0 when leading at the half, and 0-3 when trailing at the half. ... Barnes is Arizona's all-time leading scorer. She returned to the Wildcats this year after five years as an assistant at Washington. ... Arizona assistant Kelly Rae Finley was an assistant at CU the previous four seasons.
Given the hot start by the Colorado women's basketball team this year, some might view the last three games as a rough patch for the Buffaloes.
First-year head coach JR Payne views it as a reality check.
CU (10-3, 0-2 Pac-12) enters Friday's home date with Arizona (9-4, 0-2) riding a three-game losing streak. After vaulting to No. 15 in the Associated Press rankings just two weeks ago, the Buffs come in unranked.
"The rankings and all of that stuff, it was too much, too soon," Payne said. "We don't have enough depth and we don't have enough balance to be a team that's actually a No. 15 team in the country. That's just not the reality."
The reality is that CU went 7-23 a year ago, including 2-16 in the Pac-12, and becoming a legitimate Top-25 team is not an overnight process.
Of course, the 10-0 start, which included an upset of then-No. 15 Kentucky (now ranked No. 24) on Nov. 19, was a major confidence boost for the Buffs, but the current three-game skid has not hurt them mentally.
"I'd say a snap back to reality is a pretty good way to put it," senior forward Haley Smith said.
CU never expected to win every game, but as Payne judges her team, she looks more at the performance than the result. She wasn't thrilled with how the Buffs played in a 79-54 loss at USC on Dec. 30, but was pleased with how they battled in the second half of an 87-74 loss at No. 9 UCLA on Sunday.
"I'm just very much a realist and I'm more worried about the way that we're playing," Payne said. "That's how I can be happy with the second half at UCLA."
As the Buffs begin a four-game homestand, Payne's main focus will continue to be on her team's effort and execution, rather than the results.
"Any team in our conference, you're capable of competing with them, but you're also capable of losing by 20," she said. "We have to be ready to compete from the opening tip every single night, no matter where you are or who you're playing against."
Smith, who scored a career-high 31 points in the loss to UCLA, said she already feels a difference from last year, in terms of the Buffs being able to compete in the Pac-12.
While the loss to USC was an ugly loss, Smith said the Buffs came away from UCLA feeling pretty good. It was a game in which the Buffs pulled within eight points of the Bruins in the fourth quarter.
"The UCLA game was a lot more consistent with what we're going to be seeing from our team for the rest of the season," Smith said. "I think that actually brought us a lot of confidence, in the fact that we were right there."
Even as they've gone through a three-game skid and 0-2 start to conference play, the Buffs remain confident that they have the ability to win in the Pac-12 more often than they did a year ago.
"It's a great opportunity to be in a conference like this," Payne said. "You really do have a chance to see how good you can be.
"I think everybody knows that it's a tough league. It's important, though, that we realize we're not the team that was here last year."
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.