Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
So far, this has been a season where the Colorado Buffaloes have come out of nowhere.
Expected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 – again – the Buffs came out of the gates hot, gained some confidence and have carried it into the Top 15 national rankings.
No, this story is about the CU women’s basketball team, which has apparently decided to ride the wave of momentum started by The Rise of the football team this fall.
After going 7-23 a year ago, the Buffs (9-0) have vaulted to No. 15 in the Associated Press poll. (Coaches around the country aren’t buying into the Buffs yet, as they are unranked in the USA Today Coaches’ poll.)
“I think it’s confidence,” first year head coach JR Payne said when asked to explain why her team is 9-0 with two games left on the non-conference slate. “I think the players feel confidence from their coaches; I think the coaches feel confidence in their players. Everybody is just hitting on all cylinders.”
A year ago, the Buffs didn’t seem to hit on any cylinders. After a 2-0 start, they didn’t win back-to-back games the rest of the year. They went 2-16 in Pac-12 play.
At the conclusion of the season, the Buffs dismissed head coach Linda Lappe, who went 105-92 in her six seasons. While Lappe enjoyed some success at her alma mater — including a trip to the 2013 NCAA Tournament — it was clear by last March that a change of scenery was needed.
About three weeks later, CU hired Payne, who had resurrected the programs at Southern Utah and Santa Clara. She made an immediate impact on the Buffs.
“Honestly when they walked in the door,” sophomore point guard Kennedy Leonard said when asked when the Buffs gained the confidence they carry with them to the court each day. “The first thing they did was meet with all of us. They developed relationships with us. For me, at least, and I know for a lot of the rest of us, when someone develops a relationship with you, that automatically creates a trust and a confidence.
“Props to coach J and the entire staff, because I think that they’ve truly instilled all that confidence in us. Everything we do is family.”
Leonard — arguably the top player recruited by Lappe during her tenure — is averaging 17.9 points and 6.4 assists per game. Fellow sophomores Alexis Robinson and Ariana Freeman are enjoying breakout seasons, and senior Haley Smith is off to a great start.
As a team, the Buffs are shooting better, stronger on the glass and passing more efficiently.
Those are all things Payne had hoped the Buffs would do, but not even she projected this type of a start.
The Buffs are not only winning, they’re winning convincingly, with all nine victories coming by 10 points or more. And, they’ve already knocked off a Kentucky team that was ranked No. 15 at the time (the Wildcats are currently No. 19).
Payne has never had a team buy into the program this quickly.
“Not in my first year, no,” she said. “It takes a special synergy; it takes a special type of selflessness among the group and a willingness to buy into a coach that asks you do a specific job.”
Redshirt freshman Monica Burich said it was easy to buy in, not only because the players love the coaching staff, but because they knew they were talented.
Only one player from last year — Jamee Swan — graduated, while Burich, Freeman and true freshmen Quinessa Caylao-Do and Eleanor Jones have been added to the mix.
“Last year we had a lot of talent, we had a lot of really great players,” said Burich, who missed last season with a knee injury. “We were in every single game, in my opinion, except for a few.”
The Buffs lost seven games by single digits a year ago, and had others that got away from them in the fourth quarter. Lack of confidence most certainly played a role in the Buffs coming up short in a lot of those games last year.
This season, it took all of about five minutes in the season opener at Northern Colorado for Leonard to realize this team was different.
“First couple of minutes in that first game, you can see how hard we work,” she said. “Hard work wins championships, defense wins championships, and those are the things we’re focusing on and we’re taking it one game at a time.”
So far, that’s served the Buffs well.
The schedule will get significantly tougher when Pac-12 play begins on Dec. 30 — five other Pac-12 teams are in the Top 25 and three others are receiving votes — but for now, the Buffs are enjoying the ride.
“We’re just playing and having fun,” Payne said.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.