Pac-12 success the goal in Year 3 of JR Payne era of CU women’s basketball

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado head coach JR Payne and the Buffs were picked ninth in the Pac-12 preseason coaches' poll released Wednesday during the league's media day.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado guard Alexis Robinson is one of two seniors on this season's roster.



SAN FRANCISCO — There are several familiar shortcomings surrounding the Colorado women’s basketball team that might have fans wondering if the 2018-19 season will feature more of the same from coach JR Payne’s Buffaloes.

The same, in this case, is a middling overall record combined with more pervasive struggles within the Pac-12 Conference. Additionally, the Buffs once again will be a collection of new faces trying to settle into roles around the only seniors on the squad, guards Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson.

But this is Payne’s third season at the helm, and the promise on display among the youngsters provides genuine hope for the future. That may not help Leonard and Robinson experience a few more league wins in their final season — the Buffs were picked ninth in the Pac-12 preseason coaches’ poll released Wednesday during the league’s media day — yet Payne espouses confidence the corner soon will be turned for her program in Pac-12 play.

“We’re ready for a successful season,” Payne said. “I absolutely love our team in every sense of the word. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of areas to get better and grow, but I love this team.

“The only pressure is the pressure coaches put on themselves to continue incrementally get better. This isn’t a conference where you go from ninth to second. It’s just too good top to bottom. So your goal is to incrementally grow your program. As we’re getting better, everyone else is getting better. I think it’s a great opportunity for us, with a couple really experienced guards and a really talented freshman and sophomore group, it gives us a great opportunity to continue to work our way up in the conference.”

There were a few highlights over Payne’s first two seasons, most notably an upset of upset of nationally-ranked Kentucky early in 2016-17 and a first-round win in the WNIT later that season. However, the Buffs have finished an identical 5-13 in the Pac-12 in Payne’s first two seasons, with seven of those 10 wins occurring against the small contingent of teams that finished behind the Buffs in the standings.

Despite CU’s youth, Payne believes this year’s group is far more prepared for the demands of league play.

“We’re significantly bigger. We’re significantly more athletic. We’re significantly more cohesive and united as a group,” Payne said. “We have a team full of players that have bought into each other and bought into what it means to be a Colorado Buffalo. We’re young, but our sophomores played a lot last season.”

For Leonard and Robinson, being the only seniors on an otherwise young team seems somewhat fitting. As Leonard pointed out from the stage Wednesday at media day, the entire program — from the coaching staff to the support staff to the players — has turned over during their tenure in Boulder. And with Leonard in position to finish among CU’s all-time leaders in several categories, she goes into her senior season lacking just one particular highlight on her Buffaloes resume.

“Obviously I want to get us in the tournament. We’ve been to the WNIT but that’s not the same as the NCAA Tournament,” Leonard said. “I think if anything this year I’m going to do my best, and (Robinson) will do her best, to lay a foundation for the people who are going to come after us. If we can get to that tournament, I think my book will finally close and it will close on a happy chapter.”

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