A look ahead
A quick glance at who is expected to be on the roster for the Colorado women's basketball team next season
C - Zoe Correal, 6-4
G - Brecca Thomas, 5-5
F - Makenzie Ellis, 6-2
G - Ariana Freeman, 5-9
G - Kennedy Leonard, 5-8
G - Alexis Robinson, 5-10
F - Monica Burich, 6-2
G - Quinessa Caylao-Do, 5-8
F - Eleanor Jones, 6-2
G/F - Mya Hollingshed, 6-4
F - Annika Jank, 6-3
G - Aubrey Knight, 6-1
While disappointed with a loss to Iowa in her final game, Colorado senior Haley Smith concluded her women's basketball career with the Buffaloes on Thursday with her chin up, knowing that the program is in good hands.
CU finished its first season under head coach JR Payne at 17-16 (5-13 Pac-12) and with a trip to the Women's NIT third round. It was a remarkable 10-win improvement from last season, when the Buffaloes finished 7-23 (2-16 in the Pac-12).
"We hoped that we could have done a little more, especially in the Pac-12 season," Smith said, "but I'm definitely happy with where we're at, and I'm really excited to see what these guys do in the future."
After a season in which the Buffs defeated three NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Oregon and California) and came within five points of beating two of the best teams in the country (Oregon State and Washington), the future appears to be bright.
With year No. 1 of the Payne era in the books, here's an early look at next season.
There's no question the Buffs will miss Smith, an exceptional all-around player who could score, rebound and defend as well as anyone on the team. Smith has been in the starting lineup for 114 of CU's last 115 games, and it'll be odd not seeing her in the lineup next year.
Aside from Smith, the Buffs lose senior forwards Zoe Beard-Fails and Bri Watts, who provided some depth in the paint this year. They also lose wing Lauren Huggins, who played just 21 minutes in her final season because of injuries.
What's coming back?
Nine of the 13 players on this year's roster are slated to return, led by a solid group of four sophomores. That group will be the core of the team next year as juniors.
Leading the way is point guard Kennedy Leonard, an all-Pac-12 player who can score in bunches, while also averaging nearly six assists per game. Leonard is a great player, but the Buffs would love to see her become more consistent as a shooter. She takes, by far, the most shots on the team, but hit just 36.5 percent of the time, and only 27 percent from 3-point range.
Alexis Robinson became a more reliable scorer this season and has improved her all-around game, especially on defense. She tore her ACL a week ago, however, and will face an offseason of rehab. The expectation is that she can return next fall ready to take her game to the next level.
Makenzie Ellis was another sophomore who was a regular in the starting lineup this season. The 6-2 forward showed her scoring and rebounding ability at times, but needs more consistency in those efforts as a junior.
Sophomore guard Ariana Freeman provided the Buffs with some scoring punch off the bench this year. Freeman thrives in that reserve role, but will look to cut down on her turnovers and improve her shot.
Center Zoe Correal and guard Brecca Thomas will be the seniors next year if both return, but it'll be interesting to see how much they play.
Correal started all season, but averaged just 15.3 minutes per game because she was too inconsistent as a scorer and rebounder. Thomas got lost in the shuffle at guard this year, averaging just 6.7 minutes per game.
Also returning is a trio of freshmen that got their feet wet this season.
Guard Quinessa Caylao-Do has the potential to be one of the team's best perimeter defenders, but has to improve on offense, where she made just 30.9 percent of her shots from the floor and 31.3 percent of her free throws.
Forward Monica Burich gave the Buffs a lift off the bench at times, while center Eleanor Jones played in just 12 games as she dealt with injuries. The Buffs need both of them to step up and give the team a better presence in the paint.
What's coming in?
CU currently has three incoming freshmen, and this could be one of the best recruiting classes the Buffs have had in years. All three are talented enough to push for starting roles when they arrive in the fall.
Annika Jank, a 6-3 forward from Edina, Minn., is rated by ESPN as the nation's 20th-best forward for 2017. She's the all-time leading rebounder in her school's history and can also score.
Aubrey Knight is a 6-1 guard from Ventura, Calif., who is rated by ESPN as one of the top 75 players in the country. She led her team in scoring and rebounding.
Mya Hollingshed is a 6-4 guard/forward who has excellent athleticism and can score, rebound and defend.
Payne and her staff did a sensational job with the roster they inherited, and luckily most of those key players — with the exception of Smith — return.
The coaches were able to get the Buffs to play hard nearly every single night, and Payne has said that will be the standard every year she's in Boulder.
While it will take some time to build the roster the way she wants it, Payne should have a more versatile and talented group next year. If that's the case and if they continue to play hard, the Buffs will be in position to take another step — or two — forward next season.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.