The Colorado women’s basketball offices and the practice courts at the CU Events Center have remained empty for weeks.
Buffaloes head coach JR Payne hasn’t seen her team in person since shortly after the season came to an abrupt end last month when concerns about the spread of the coronavirus led to the cancellation of the postseason.
Despite the disappointment of the truncated season and the inability to work out and meet together as a team, Payne and the Buffs are excited about their future.
“We’ll still be relatively young,” Payne said. “But I think we’re going to be pretty good and I love the players that we signed. We’re really, really excited.”
Four seasons into her tenure at CU, Payne has a 60-64 record, but her team showed significant signs of progress this past season. CU (16-14, 5-13 Pac-12) posted its first winning season since 2016-17 and its best winning percentage since 2013-14. The Buffs likely would have been invited to the Women’s NIT.
Although three players from this past season are moving on – guard Quinessa Caylao-Do (graduated), wing Emma Clarke (transfer to Texas Tech) and center Kai Volcy (transfer) – the Buffs return 76% of their scoring and 80% of their rebounding production. They’ve also signed five players for the class of 2020.
With high hopes for the future, Payne and the Buffs are doing their best to keep the momentum going from this past season.
“We’ve had team Zoom meetings and everyone is in great spirits and the team has their own private Zoom meetings, and everyone’s working hard and connected,” Payne said.
The challenge is trying to navigate offseason development remotely. Payne and her staff have emphasized to the players the need to simulate game speed reps as much as possible as they work alone.
“We can all go to the outdoor court and mess around and that’s better than doing nothing,” she said. “But we said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, do it as if your coaches are on the court with you and your teammates are on the court with you.’”
As the players strive to develop, there is plenty to work on – especially on offense.
The Buffs were last in the Pac-12 in scoring (64.1 points per game), led the conference in turnovers and ranked near the bottom in field goal percentage (39.6), 3-point percentage (28.5) and free throw percentage (68.3).
“I thought a big deficiency for us was 3-point shooting,” Payne said.
Clarke had the hot hand early, but struggled during the second half of the season. As a team, the Buffs hit an ugly 20.7% of their 3-pointers over the last 12 games.
“We’ve got to be able to score in transition, we’ve got to be able to score in the half court, as well, and at times we did very efficiently,” Payne said. “But 3-point shooting is a bugaboo. It’s hard to score, it’s hard to feed the ball inside to Mya (Hollingshed) and not have three people collapse on her because we don’t have shooters on the floor.”
Hollingshed, who led the team in scoring (13.1) and rebounding (6.9), was one of the Buffs’ top 3-point shooters, but Payne said the group will work on improving that area of the game. Reinforcements from the recruiting class will help, too, as several quality shooters have been signed.
“I think we’re going to be able to add some 3-point shooting, which will make things much easier,” Payne said.
Another point of emphasis will be what Payne believes are fixable issues that led to a high volume of turnovers.
“I think we need to continue to work on fundamentals, like being able to pass,” she said. “We turned the ball over just trying to feed Mya the ball down low.”
As the Buffs do their best to develop remotely, there is excitement about the roster.
Hollingshed, who will be a senior, has improved every year of her CU career. Junior forward Peanut Tuitele found her groove in the second half of the season, and junior wing Aubrey Knight excelled in a sixth-player role.
CU also loves the potential of sophomore center Charlotte Whittaker, who had a tough freshman season. She had knee surgery last summer, a toe injury in October and then a January leg injury that caused her to miss three games.
“I think if Charlotte had been healthy throughout the year, or at least not had major things that kept her sidelined for weeks at a time, she would have had a more consistent season,” Payne said. “I do think the sky’s the limit for Charlotte’s potential.”
Perhaps the most intriguing piece to the puzzle is point guard Jaylyn Sherrod. As a true freshman, she seized the starting job, finished second on the team in scoring (9.9) and was fourth in the Pac-12 in assists (5.1).
Sherrod hit the freshman wall in the second half, but will be one of the Pac-12’s top young guards next season.
“She’s such a resilient kid that I have no doubt (Sherrod will bounce back from late-season struggles),” Payne said. “I don’t think there will be any lingering effects. But I do think that’s normal for freshmen, to sort of hit that wall.”
For Sherrod and all the Buffs, there is something to work on for next season – even if they aren’t together. While the current circumstances are not ideal, Payne is confident her players and staff are putting in the work to take the next step as a program.
“Our chemistry is great, our kids work hard, we’ve got inside play, we’ve got great guard play in our point guards,” she said. “We’re excited.”