Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
Focus on the record, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the Colorado women’s basketball program is going in the wrong direction.
Three years into her tenure as head coach, JR Payne has led the Buffaloes to a 44-50 overall record. After a 17-16 mark in her first year, the Buffs went 15-16 in her second and a dismal 12-18 this season. This year included a 2-16 record in Pac-12 play, matching the worst conference record in program history.
“I feel awful about it,” Payne said of the Buffs’ bottom line. “It eats at me.”
It’s often the win-loss record that determines the fate of a coach and the staff and Payne will go into next year feeling some pressure — from herself, if nothing else — to get the Buffs on the winning track.
“Absolutely,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone on our staff that’s ever finished last place in anything. That’s something that should be eating at us, eating at our players and motivating for the next seven months until we get to put on a uniform again.”
Climbing out of the cellar won’t be easy in the Pac-12 — which is one of the best conferences in the country for women’s basketball — especially because the Buffs have to do it without their two best players, as Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson are both graduating.
Payne, however, goes into the offseason with optimism for the future — and not only because she typically takes a positive approach.
CU’s 2018-19 season will be remembered by those in the program as a difficult season because the Buffs were never fully healthy.
Sophomore Aubrey Knight played only three games before being shut down with a shoulder injury. She was, at least, going to be a regular contributor off the bench. Leonard missed 10 games with a foot injury and was never herself even after returning. Robinson went down with a knee injury at the time Leonard returned. Freshman Peanut Tuitele, who showed great promise early in the season, battled injuries all year long.
That’s a significant amount of injuries for a team that wasn’t very deep to begin with.
“We just weren’t experienced enough or deep enough to withstand some of the losses that we took from an injury standpoint,” Payne said.
Despite that, the Buffs somehow remained competitive in most games, even playing perennial power Stanford tough without Leonard.
“That competitive spirit didn’t break, and that tells me a lot about where we are as a program,” Payne said.
It’s a program that is certainly still evolving.
Just three years on the job, Payne has already seen 10 players leave the program before their eligibility expired, for various reasons. They’ve tried to fill some holes with junior college transfers that didn’t work out. They’ve had others who simply wanted to find a better opportunity elsewhere.
For the Buffs to turn the corner, they’ve got to have success in recruiting, but that often takes a while. Payne and her staff have signed just three recruiting classes so far, and that includes the 2019 group that has yet to play for the Buffs.
Payne’s first two recruiting classes are talented, but they were underclassmen this past season. It’s a group that includes Knight, Tuitele, Mya Hollingshed, Annika Jank, Emma Clarke, Lesila Finau and Kai Volcy.
“Those kids will be juniors and sophomores (next season) and that is a much older group than freshman and sophomores,” Payne said. “Those young kids, plus our few upperclassmen that we had, were extremely competitive against teams that are much deeper and older and experienced.
“We’ve got some good players that are freshmen and sophomores. We need to get bigger and stronger and things like that. When I look at who we’ve brought in and what they’re capable of giving us, I feel really good about that.”
CU will bring in at least four new players next season. With three open scholarships, the class could grow. Among the new players is Charlotte Whittaker, who arrived in January and redshirted. CU’s coaches are excited about her potential.
“The more recruiting classes you’re able to sign or the more you’re able to instill a culture of toughness and competiveness and fearlessness, the easier that gets,” Payne said.
The youngsters will be led, in part, by Quinessa Caylao-Do. The lone senior next year, she has taken her game to a new level each season.
So, while the positive results haven’t been there and continue to bother Payne and her staff, she continues to be a firm believer in the foundation being set.
“It’s not just the personnel pieces (that are encouraging); it’s the way we’ve been able to create a fight in that group,” Payne said. “I have nothing but positives (about the future).”