DURHAM, N.C. – Jaylyn Sherrod wreaks havoc and causes turnovers in bunches. Kindyll Wetta is a pest on the court.
Colorado’s point guard duo is at the forefront of a defensive mentality that has taken the Buffaloes to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament for a second consecutive season.
“It’s just who we are,” Sherrod said this week as the 21st-ranked Buffs prepared for Saturday’s NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with Middle Tennessee in Durham, N.C. (5 p.m. MT, ESPNews). “We believe in it and we know it works for us, so that’s why we go after it.”
Getting to the heart of CU’s feisty style of play, however, requires a rewind to the 1980s, when associate head coach Toriano Towns was an only child in a single-parent home in the Los Angeles area, shaped by his mother, Sonita Smith.
“Listen, for as tough and fierce and as ferocious as I am, I’m probably a Chihuahua compared to her,” Towns said.
Smith’s mother died at a young age, forcing her to help raise her three brothers. Those brothers didn’t make life easy on Towns as a child.
“They were like my older brothers,” Towns said. “It was a physical, rough-housing type family. You come in and they’re waiting for you behind the door to punch you in the leg or get you in a headlock and not let you out until you fought your way out.
“You love them to death, but you knuckled up every day. There was no backing down. You better be tough. You better fight.”
Towns is very close to his mother and uncles to this day and is grateful for the path Smith put him on at a young age.
“This was in the ’80s when gangs and drugs and were very prevalent,” he said. “It was either, you’re gonna join a sports team or you’re joining a gang and there was no way in my household my mom was gonna let me veer off that path.”
After growing up playing every sport possible, Towns played college football at Saint Mary’s College, as a defensive back.
“You’ve got to have a great sense of confidence and toughness and swagger and belief in yourself (at defensive back), because you’re oftentimes on the island,” he said. “That was probably the inception of some of my defensive philosophies and defensive mindsets.”
When he wasn’t playing football, Towns became a practice player for the Gaels’ women’s basketball team. Head coach Kelly Graves (now the head coach at Oregon) wanted to toughen up his team, so he introduced the idea of having guys practice against his team.
One of Graves’ top players was guard JR Payne, now Towns’ wife and Colorado’s head coach. Payne was introduced to Towns’ intensity early on and has trusted him to run the Buffaloes’ defense for years.
“He’s naturally wired that way,” said Payne, who has had Towns by her side for 21 of her 22 years as a coach. “He’s always naturally watched basketball in that way. He’ll watch a game on TV and his eye naturally goes to the defensive side.”
Payne, now in her seventh season as the Buffs’ head coach, and Towns agree they’ve been great for each other because they’re very different as coaches, but they’ve been able to mesh well.
“My mom always says I wouldn’t be the coach I am without him and he wouldn’t be the coach he is without me,” Payne said. “So our balance is really good.”
Part of that balance has been in having Towns lead the defense and it is the defense that has become CU’s trademark in the past few years.
This season, the Buffs are allowing 58.6 points per game (46th nationally out of 350 teams). The Buffs’ opponents connect at just 37.9% from the floor (63rd) and CU has racked up 9.8 steals per game (30th).
CU’s offense doesn’t always shine, but the Buffs can usually count on their defense.
There are two main keys to CU’s defense, with mentality being first and foremost.
CU’s roster isn’t filled with blue-chip recruits. In fact, it’s loaded with players who weren’t highly recruited by the best teams in the country.
“Just the essence of who we are, as people, as a program, we felt like we had something to prove as we’re working our way back to national prominence,” Towns said. “And, as players, they felt like they had something to prove, as they were often overlooked and under recruited and underappreciated by schools and coaches from around the country.
“I think those two come together and it really created a perfect storm of a group of people that just have a salty disposition. That’s just sort of become who we are. Defense is really just the opportunity for us to express that emotion on the floor.”
On the floor, those emotions are led by Sherrod and Wetta, two quick, in-your-face guards who have fully embraced Towns’ fierce style.
“I love it. I thrive in it,” said Sherrod, who leads the Pac-12 with 2.47 steals per game. “It’s become a sense of who I am, night in and night out. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else because there’s not many places you can go that embrace that type of player and that type of playing style and I think this place is perfect.”
The second key is that CU’s staff is extremely detailed in putting together scouting reports, and they pass it on to the players.
“What is often unseen is just the amount of preparation, whether that’s in the film room, or whether that is actually on the floor working on technique, or the execution of our defensive game plan,” Towns said. “We spend a lot of time on that. Our coaches do a great job of really fine-tuning that and picking out sort of the essential components of what makes our opponent tick and then our kids just really buy into that sense of preparation.”
Aside from when she drained a game-winning 3-pointer to beat UCLA in overtime on Jan. 27, Wetta hasn’t smiled any brighter than she did this week in talking about CU’s defense.
“I would take (defense) over offense any day and so to be a part of a team that really prides itself on defense, absolutely amazing,” Wetta said.
All of the Buffs, but Wetta and Sherrod in particular, often frustrate opponents and actually enjoy being annoying defenders.
“Oh yeah, it’s so fun,” Wetta said with a smile. “We get comments. They start getting irritated, annoyed, and flustered with the pressure and it’s fun to kind of hear what they have to say.”
It’s that frustration and annoyance that Towns strives for every game. The Buffs don’t always achieve it, but that’s the goal and it has become the identity of a program that is on the national stage for the second year in a row.
“There’s nothing more empowering than that feeling (of completely frustrating an opponent),” Towns said. “We’ve had it a couple times this year and it’s magic when everything clicks.
“It’s a really euphoric feeling that you’re constantly chasing, you’re constantly trying to feel again.”