When the preseason Pac-12 women’s basketball polls were announced this fall, it was no surprise to see the Colorado Buffaloes projected at the bottom.
In separate polls, the Pac-12 coaches and media voted the Buffs in 12th place, and not particularly close to 11th. That’s the result of the Buffs being last place a year ago and losing two of their top players to graduation.
On Sunday, the Buffs (11-0) begin their quest to exceed those expectations when they visit Utah (7-4) in the Pac-12 opener for both teams.
“We all know that we’re coming in as the underdog and we’re ready to show what we can do,” CU sophomore Aubrey Knight said. “We’re all super excited. We’ve been waiting all year for this.”
At 11-0, the Buffs went into Saturday as one of only nine undefeated teams – out of 352 in Division I – in the country, but still have plenty to prove.
CU’s ranking at RealTimeRPI.com is a solid No. 47, and head coach JR Payne said, “We’ve played a good variety and a good schedule.”
More so, the RPI ranking is indicative of CU taking care of business against a relatively easy schedule. RealTimeRPI.com ranks the Buffs’ strength of schedule at No. 254, with only two opponents ranked in the top 135 – No. 83 Wisconsin and No. 85 Texas Southern.
This is familiar territory for the Buffs, who are now 40-5 in non-conference games during Payne’s four seasons. That success has never carried over to conference play, however.
CU’s 12-42 Pac-12 record over the past three years is the worst in the conference. A year ago, they finished at the bottom, matching the worst conference record (2-16) in program history.
Last year’s record and the fact that the Buffs graduated Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson made the preseason predictions understandable.
“We’re fired up,” Knight said. “I think that people may come in at first and think that, ‘Oh, this is the team maybe you take a break,’ but we’re going to prove that that is not the case very early. You may have picked us 12th, but that doesn’t matter, because we’re going to come out and we’re going to play hard every single day.”
To finally enjoy some Pac-12 success, the Buffs have to prove they are a different team than in previous years, and they believe they are different.
“I feel like this is the best team overall that I’ve played with – offensively, defensively, on and off the court,” said senior Quinessa Caylao-Do, the only player who has been with the Buffs the last four seasons. “Even though we’re young, I don’t think age really matters. I think that the stuff that we’re doing, just watching film and stuff, I think we look really good.”
Leonard finished her career as CU’s all-time leader in assists and seventh in scoring, while Robinson capped her career 18th on the Buffs’ all-time scoring list.
To replace that duo, the Buffs have stepped up as a group. Led by May Hollingshed’s 13.9 points per game, the Buffs have seven players averaging at least 6.7 points per game. Six different players have led the Buffs in scoring and eight different players have scored in double figures – each of them more than once.
“We’re more balanced than we’ve ever been,” Payne said. “I think that bodes well for when you play elevated, better teams. You can’t just rely on one or two or even three people to do everything, because that’s easier to take away.
“If we ever have a night where we’re all hitting, we’re going to be really, really good, but that’s hard to do. But, I love that our team is pretty unselfish.”
That unselfishness is evident not only in scoring, but with assists. Freshman Jaylyn Sherrod and sophomore Sila Finau are averaging 8.3 between them. As a team, the Buffs are averaging 15.0 per game, on pace for their highest average in five years.
“The way our offense is moving, I would say it’s a lot better – motion wise (than in past years),” Caylao-Do said.
She added that the Buffs are different defensively, and “I think everyone’s just confident.”
As far as Knight is concerned, the biggest difference is team chemistry.
“I think that’s almost underestimated in teams,” Knight said. “I think the biggest difference from this team to the two teams that I’ve been on before is that we have the chemistry off the court, which is starting to translate on the court.”
While this feels like a different team to the players, the Buffs are well aware of the challenge ahead of them.
The Pac-12 schedule is brutal, with four teams currently ranked in the top 10: No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Oregon State, No. 5 Stanford and No. 10 UCLA. The Buffs have eight games against that foursome, and 12 of the 18 conference games are against teams currently in the top 60 of the RPI ratings.
“It’s not going to be easy and I think we will face some adversity,” Caylao-Do said. “But I think we’ve already had some adversity in games, where it’s been close, and just showing that we would be able to stick together and fight together and pull through and just run our plays and just stay solid. I think that will get us a long way throughout the season.”
Payne wants her team to play with a chip on their shoulder and “play like everyone thought we would be last,” and that might be the best way to get through the Pac-12 gauntlet.
No doubt, the rest of the season will be different for the Buffs, but they believe they are ready.
“It’s not going to be a walk in the park and we know that,” Knight said. “It’s going to be challenging every day. It’s a different ball game (in the Pac-12). They are different animals, but so are we – and we have to believe that.”
CU women’s basketball preview: Utah
MATCHUP: Colorado Buffaloes (11-0) at Utah Utes (7-4)
GAME TIME: Sunday, 2 p.m. MT, at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.
BROADCAST: TV – Pac-12 Networks. Radio – 630 AM
COACHES: Colorado – JR Payne, 4th season (55-50; 156-163 career). Utah – Lynne Roberts, 5th season (79-58; 300-233 career).
LEADERS: Colorado – Scoring: F Mya Hollingshed, Jr., 13.9 ppg; Rebounding: G Aubrey Knight, So., 7.4 rpg; Assists – G Jaylyn Sherrod, Fr., 5.3 apg. Utah – Scoring: G Brynna Maxwell, Fr., 13.1 ppg; Rebounds: F Lola Pendande, Fr., 6.3 rpg; Assists: G Dru Gylten, So., 4.6 apg.
NOTABLE: This is the Pac-12 opener for both teams. The Buffs are 1-7 in Pac-12 openers, losing seven in a row. …The Buffs went 2-0 at the Tulane Classic last week. Knight was named tournament MVP after averaging 20 points and 10.5 rebounds. She had the two highest scoring games of her career (24 and 16 points) in the tournament. … Utah leads the all-time series, 18-17, including 11-4 in Salt Lake City. The Utes won both meetings last year. … CU is seeking its first 12-0 start since the 2011-12 season; that year, the Buffs won at Utah to get to 12-0. … CU had eight points in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, the fourth consecutive week the Buffs have received votes. … The Buffs are 45-99 in Pac-12 play during their eight seasons in the conference. … After an 0-3 start, Utah is 7-1 in its last eight games. … The Utes’ four losses have come by a combined 23 points.