It’s never too difficult to coax a smile out of Peanut Tuitele, but on Wednesday it seemed a bit brighter than usual.
A sophomore for the Colorado women’s basketball team, Tuitele is getting antsy for the start of the season.
“Oh yeah, I am ready,” she said. “I can’t wait until tip-off because I feel good. I feel like I’m in better shape than last year because I sacrificed so much time and committed to it. So I’m just ready to get the wheels rolling.”
A 6-foot-1 forward from Chico, Calif., Tuitele put up solid numbers as a freshman last season, averaging 7.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Those numbers don’t tell the story of a freshmen season that was anything but smooth.
After a strong start, where she scored in double digits eight times in the first 13 games, she spent the second half of the year dealing with various injuries and battling the adjustment to the Pac-12. She scored in double figures just twice in the second half of the year, missed four full games (including the last three) and played less than 20 minutes in six others down the stretch.
“(Injuries) are part of the game,” she said. “Injuries are inevitable and all you can do is treatment and rehab. So it was detrimental to my first year … but, you know, (head coach JR Payne) and everyone really picked me up.”
Injuries made Tuitele’s freshman year even tougher than usual. Many college athletes find the adjustment, in itself, to be difficult – not just with being on their own, but learning a new speed of the game and going against tougher competition every night.
“The acclimation is the worst part (of freshman year),” Tuitele said. “It’s a totally different ballgame.
“For me personally, it was hard because the posts in college are way stronger and faster than the ones I faced in high school.”
Tuitele suddenly had to realize the importance of lifting weights to become stronger, while also working on her agility and footwork.
“I really never focused on that high school, because I was like the tallest player out there and strongest,” she said. “Now I’m like the underdog post because I’m 6-1 and everyone’s 6-4, 6-5. I sacrificed my summer to get stronger and faster so I can be a better player than I was last year.”
When she was healthy, Tuitele was one of the Buffs’ top players. Six games into the season, she moved into the starting lineup and wound up starting 19 times. She had a double-double against Samford, scored 23 points in a win against Washington State, and earned Pac-12 freshman of the week honors in early December.
“I think it was really fun,” she said. “I did not expect myself to be a key component to the team, especially that young and not nearly as experienced as the upperclassmen. To see that the coaches believed in me and my teammates believed in me, it really grew my confidence in myself. As a player, I was like, ‘Yeah, I do belong here.’”
There’s no doubt she belongs and, if healthy, will be a key player once again. Guard-oriented the past few years, the Buffs’ strength this year appears to be in the frontcourt.
Coaches are eagerly awaiting the debut of 6-foot-4 freshman center Charlotte Whittaker, and they’re excited about the development of 6-4 sophomore center Kai Volcy. If that duo develops as hoped, Tuitele could become a bigger threat, as she could potentially start matching up with forwards, as opposed to centers.
“I think we’re just a bigger ballclub,” Payne said. “We’re going to be able to do more from a defensive standpoint, from a rebounding standpoint, and it’s going to be a different look.”
How the Buffs look will begin to take shape when they open the season Nov. 10 against NJIT at CU Events Center. For now, Tuitele is happy to be on the court and feeling great.
“My mental state is back where it was and I feel better than ever,” she said.
Volcy coming on
During the summer, Volcy missed some much-needed developmental time as she had to be home in New Jersey, Payne said. The sophomore returned this fall with a vengeance, however.
“The strides that she’s actually made in the last couple of weeks, she comes in to watch film almost every day,” Payne said. “She’s kind of like making up for lost time, I would say, in the last month, and has really grown.”
Volcy averaged 6.2 minutes in 24 games played last year, but could play a bigger role this season.