Preseason predictions don’t mean a whole lot, other than giving fans an idea of the teams that are supposed to be good around the country or in a given conference.
When the results of the Pac-12 women’s basketball coaches poll were released last week, however, it had meaning to the Colorado Buffaloes.
Coaches around the league picked the Buffs to finish last – and they weren’t very close to 11th place California in the voting.
“It’s a huge motivator,” CU head coach JR Payne said Wednesday at the Buffs’ annual media day. “We talked about it on the stretching circle the very next day with our team and I told them … ‘People don’t know a lot about you guys, but that doesn’t mean anything other than every day you have an opportunity to prove to people what you’re capable of being.’”
The last-place projection was no surprise, considering the Buffs finished at the bottom a year ago (12-18, 2-16 Pac-12) and lost their top two scorers – Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson – to graduation. Leonard, who graduated as the program’s all-time leader in assists, was CU’s top player the last four years.
Despite the losses, Payne comes into her fourth season at CU optimistic that the program is ready to take steps forward. The Buffs are 44-50 under Payne, while trending the wrong direction. They went 17-16 and played in the WNIT in her first year, followed by 15-16 in her second and then last year’s disappointment.
“(The process has been) slower than I wanted it to be, certainly,” Payne said. “But if I came in with a realistic expectation and a realistic understanding of what it takes to build and grow a program properly, then no, it hasn’t taken any longer (than expected). I’ve been very, very patient and diligent in bringing in the right type of people that will be successful on the basketball court here, as well as in our community and in the classroom. And I think that’s why I can sit here and say how much I love my team right now.”
Success on the court has been lacking thus far, but Payne said she doesn’t feel any external pressure.
“There’s no one that puts any more pressure on themselves than I do – for myself and for our team,” she said. “I really do feel like we have a great opportunity ahead of us based on our personnel, the number of returners, the cohesiveness of our team, and then just the fact that we have way more veterans than we’ve had.”
While the Buffs will miss Leonard and Robinson, they played big chunks of the season without them last year when they were injured. That gave youngsters, including point guard Sila Finau, who was a freshman last year, playing time that would not have been there otherwise. Finau is a more confident player this year.
The Buffs are boosted by the return of senior Quinessa Caylao-Do (11.1 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game) and junior Mya Hollingshed (10.8, 6.6) to the starting lineup, as well as having sophomores Peanut Tuitele (7.3, 5.4) and Emma Clarke (4.6, 3.2) much more comfortable with a year of experience under their belts.
Tuitele, freshman Charlotte Whittaker and sophomore Kai Volcy give the Buffs three talented – although still developing – players in the paint. Going three deep in the post allows junior Annika Jank (6.0, 4.2) to move to the wing, which is a better fit for her game. Jank got stronger this year and excited to work on the wing.
The return of Aubrey Knight from shoulder surgery and the addition of a freshman class that includes point guard Jaylyn Sherrod provide the Buffs even more depth than they’ve had recently.
In addition, the Buffs believe they have better chemistry as a team.
“I’ve coached really talented teams that were not as successful as maybe the lesser talented teams that did have great chemistry,” Payne said. “And we’re in a place right now where I see things happening in practice (that display good chemistry).”
Trying to climb the standings in the Pac-12 – which is arguably the deepest conference in the country – won’t be easy, but the pieces are in place for the Buffs to at least carry some confidence into the season.
“After seeing the poll, I was like, ‘No, we are here to make a statement to everyone out there that we are not meant to be 12th,’” Tuitele said. “I just think overall as a team we’ve become stronger, faster, more connected, no clicks and we’re just so close. And I think we’re going to be a way different ball team.”