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CU Buffs’ JR Payne excited for possible early return of basketball

Team still in small group training mode with restrictions

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado head women’s basketball coach JR Payne is anticipating a return of basketball in late November.
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Colorado women’s basketball coach JR Payne didn’t need to see her team last Wednesday to know her players were hit with a jolt of energy.

After the Big Ten Conference announced on Wednesday a return to football – a move that spurred the Pac-12 to put wheels in motion for its own return – the NCAA announced that college basketball teams could start playing games Nov. 25.

“I think there definitely was a sense of excitement,” Payne said. “I could almost feel it through text messages, but they want answers like, how many games are we playing? Are we going to have fans? There’s still a lot of unknowns that they would like answers to, but just the idea that, ‘OK, this is happening,’ is good for us.”

For now, the major question that needs answered is whether the Pac-12 will allow the Buffs and other conference basketball teams to start on Nov. 25.

On Aug. 11, the conference announced a postponement of competition until at least Jan. 1 because of the coronavirus pandemic. It is expected that Pac-12 presidents and chancellors will announce a return to football, possibly on Thursday. Various reports have the Pac-12 opening games Oct. 31 or Nov. 7. If football returns early, it’s likely basketball will, too.

“We definitely feel like we’ll be playing Nov. 25,” Payne said. “We were excited about the opportunity that it might come quicker than January.”

In fact, Payne and her staff altered the Buffs’ training regimen recently when there was national discussion centered on a late November start date for basketball.

“When we thought it was going to be January, we had really gone to like an individual skill development focus; less team training, less offense scheming and purely skill development,” Payne said.

Anticipating a November start, Payne said, “We kind of have gone back a little bit now to starting to implement some offensive and defensive system.”

The difficult part of that, however, is that the Buffs still aren’t allowed to train as a full team or scrimmage. Working on offensive scheme is much easier than defense, under the current guidelines.

“Our team feels like they’re excited,” she said. “We’re training, they’re excited we’re sweating and playing, but they want to play against somebody, even if it’s just each other or the coaches. So I think that’s the biggest thing now is when can we get out of our functional groups and into a big group? And when can we have some defense?”

While some believe the Pac-12 was too quick to postpone sports on Aug. 11, Payne is grateful the conference has shown flexibility with that plan.

“I know we have such a powerful medical team in the Pac-12 that I really actually appreciate that they put our young ladies’ safety above everything in that moment (on Aug. 11),” Payne said. “Now, we were disappointed when we heard it got pushed back and then I know it’s hard for athletes to see other people in different parts of the country training or even right now we’re seeing other conferences are playing full on five-on-five. … But I do appreciate the flexibility of the Pac-12 and that they’re not too stubborn to say, ‘Hey, maybe things have changed and maybe we can now move forward safely with our athletes’ safety still being at the front as a priority.’”

If, or when, the Pac-12 gives the green light to basketball being played in November, Payne and other coaches have to figure out how many games they can get. Per the NCAA guidelines, women’s teams can schedule 23 games, plus one multi-team event, or they can schedule 25 games with no multi-team event. The Pac-12 would have to decide if non-conference games are allowed.

“We just want to play, and we want to play as many games as we’re allowed to play,” Payne said.

Notable

CU junior Aubrey Knight was one of 32 student-athletes around the country selected for the NCAA’s Division I Women’s Basketball Student-Athlete Engagement Group. Knight is the lone Pac-12 representative in the group. … Payne said the Buffs have stayed relatively healthy throughout workouts as through the first few weeks of classes. “We have a great group of young women who are really choosing to put their teammates and their season ahead of  maybe their own desire to go out and be social and meet people and things like that, with the understanding that all of that will happen in due time; just not right now,” Payne said. “I’ve been very appreciative of that with our ball club.”