Colorado women's basketball coach Linda Lappe figured her team would have to earn some respect as one of the two new teams to the Pac-12 Conference a year ago.
After all, the other teams in the conference had very little experience with the Buffs. Other than California and Southern Cal, who had both faced the Buffs in the 2011 Women's NIT, no other Pac-12 school had faced CU in at least five years.
"Any time you change conferences, nobody knows who you are, what your tradition is like, what players you have, what kind of coach you are, what you have for facilities, what your fan base is like," Lappe said.
The Buffs were picked to finish 11th in 2011-12 and wound up 10th.
Obviously, they had more work to do. That was evident when they were picked by Pac-12 coaches this season to finish ninth. Even Arizona State, which had no returning starters, was more highly regarded.
"I laughed," junior guard Brittany Wilson said of the preseason coaches' poll. "But, that's just because we knew the work that we put in. We knew this year was going to be a special year for us."
So far, it has been.
Ranked No. 18 in the country, Colorado (24-5, 13-5 Pac-12) finished fourth in the Pac-12 and earned a first-round bye for the conference tournament. The Buffs carry a nine-game win streak into Friday's tournament quarterfinals against Washington.
"I think Linda Lappe has done a spectacular job," said UCLA coach Cori Close, whose team finished third. "When we were talking as a staff about people who were in the conversation for coach of the year, she had to be in that conversation.
"It's the way they've gone about it: hard-nosed defense, rebounding, consistency in their execution."
Rather than being bitter about the lack of respect at the beginning of the year, the Buffs dug in and went to work to change that.
"My thought (about the preseason poll) was we've just got to gain our respect," senior point guard Chucky Jeffery said. "We know what we did in the offseason, what type of team that we were building. We know what we had, but they didn't necessarily."
They do now.
CU's only losses in conference play came to the top three teams -- Stanford, California and UCLA -- and the Buffs played fairly well in most of those games.
"Overall, they've become more consistent in a lot of what they do," ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne said.
Although the Buffs had a 4-5 Pac-12 record at one point, with two losses to Stanford (currently ranked No. 4), two to Cal (No. 5) and one to UCLA (No. 14), Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer was impressed with how CU used those losses to get better for the second half.
"A lot of teams would get discouraged and they didn't," VanDerveer said.
VanDerveer praised CU for its aggressive play and said the Buffs "are a very well-coached team."
That's the type of praise the Buffs didn't warrant a year or two ago. But now they are viewed as one of the elite teams in the conference.
"I'd rather have us earn it than for it to be given to us and then we slack off," Wilson said. "I think we earned it and you can't ask for anything better than that."
Lappe said she doesn't take much stock in preseason predictions, but, "I knew at the beginning of the season that there was no way that we were going to finish ninth."
Lappe figured if her team remained healthy and got solid contributions from its young players, the Buffs would turn some heads. The Buffs now have a healthy measure of respect from their conference foes, but that's only a step in the right direction. CU still has work to do.
"I'm not sure still how many people expect us to do anything at the Pac-12 Tournament," Lappe said. "We are still a four seed and yes we get a first-round bye, but we're not picked to win the Pac-12 Tournament by anybody, probably."
No, the Buffs aren't picked to win the tournament this week, but the Pac-12 is well aware of how good CU has become. And, with CU hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in two weeks, the Buffs have got a chance to build on that.
"If they get the right matchups in Boulder, I really do believe they can be a (Sweet 16) team, for sure," Close said. "In fact, I expect them to be, quite frankly. They have really good guard play, they're very physical, I think Boulder is a hard place to come in and play. There are a lot of things boding in their favor."
Regardless of how the next few weeks turn out, CU can at least walk away from this season knowing it has made significant strides in the eyes of its rivals.
"I am proud that I feel like we've been able to at least put a dent in that in earning the Pac-12's respect," she said. "It's a big deal and it means a lot."
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.
CU women's hoops preview
FRIDAY: The No. 18 Colorado Buffaloes (24-5) face the Washington Huskies (20-10) in a 9:30 p.m. game at KeyArena in Seattle.
BROADCAST: TV -- Pac-12 Network. Radio -- KKZN (760 AM), with Mike Rice on play-by-play and Carol Callan providing color commentary.
STORYLINES: Colorado is the No. 4 seed in the 12-team Pac-12 Tournament and had a bye in Thursday's first round. ... Washington defeated Oregon 69-62 on Thursday. The Huskies rallied from an early 22-point deficit. It was the largest comeback win in program history. ... This is Colorado's highest seed for a conference tournament since being the No. 3 seed for the Big 12 Tournament in 2004. ... Since joining the Big 12 in 1997, the Buffs are 6-2 in conference tournaments when they are the higher seed. ... Since 1997, the Buffs are 3-2 after a first-round bye, losing their first game in 2002 and 2004. ... CU has won five conference tournament titles, taking four in the Big Eight (1988, 1992, 1995 and 1996) and one in the Big 12 (1997). ... CU is 30-25 all-time in conference tournament games. ... The Buffaloes have won nine consecutive games, including against Washington on Feb. 24. ... This is the longest win streak the Buffs have taken into postseason play since the 1994-95 team won 19 in a row to close the regular season. The 1994-95 team extended the streak to 25 by winning the Big Eight Tournament and reaching the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament. ... CU finished the regular season 23-0 against unranked teams.
KEY STAT: During Pac-12 play, the Buffaloes ranked second in the conference in field-goal percentage defense (35.3 percent). Offensively, Washington (35.5 percent) was 10th in field-goal percentage. The Huskies made just 32.0 percent of their shots in Thursday's win against Oregon.
COACHES: Linda Lappe is 63-35 in her third season at CU and 113-71 overall. Kevin McGuff is 40-24 in his second season at Washington and 254-97 for his career.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Colorado -- G Chucky Jeffery, 5-10, Sr. (13.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.3 spg); G Brittany Wilson, 5-7, Jr. (8.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.3 apg); G Jasmine Sborov, 6-0, So. (2.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 apg); F Arielle Roberson, 6-1, Fr. (12.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg); C Rachel Hargis, 6-4, Jr. (4.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.1 bpg). Washington -- G Mercedes Wetmore, 5-8, Jr. (7.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.8 apg); G Jazmine Davis, 5-7, So. (19.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.2 apg); G Kristi Kingma, 5-11, Sr. (13.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg); F Aminah Williams, 6-0, So. (9.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg); F Talia Walton, 6-2, Fr. (13.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg).
SERIES: CU leads Washington 7-3, including a 68-61 victory against the Huskies on Feb. 24 in Boulder.
UP NEXT: With a victory on Friday, CU will play Saturday at 9:30 p.m. MST in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals in Seattle. If CU loses, it will wait until at the NCAA Selection Show on March 18 to find out its postseason destination.