Pac-12 preview: the University of Colorado

This is the fifth in an annual season preview series of the Pac-12 teams.

Just a few years ago the Colorado Buffs were soaring, and got as high as 11 in the AP top 25 rankings. But it came crashing down the following season, and continued to decline. Last year Colorado went 7-23 overall and 2-16 in the Pac-12, finishing last.

Out went coach Linda Lappe after six seasons, and in came high-energy JR Payne, who had just grown Santa Clara into one of the nation’s top defensive teams in only two years as head coach. She hit the ground running in Boulder, and hasn’t let up.

The Buffs saw top scorer Jamee Swan (13.5 points, 7 rebounds per game) graduate last spring, but the four returning starters are long on talent.

Senior guard/forward Haley Smith (10.7 points, 5.7 rebounds per game) is what Payne calls “a utility kid” for her versatility.

“She will have to play 2-5 positions,” Payne said. “She really fit us (the new coaching staff). We adore her – she’s working hard.”

Sophomore guards Kennedy Leonard (12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds per game) and Alexis Robinson (7.6 points, 3.2 points per game) are big for Colorado because of their on-court energy. Both received pac-12 all-freshmen honors last season, and Payne said the team will rely on them more than is the case for most second-year players.

“They will have to carry us for a while,” Payne said, adding that both players have a deep love for the game.

“They are two of our hardest-working players – they are always in the gym. They want to compete, and they do more than typical sophomores.”

Senior guard/forward Lauren Huggins (7.2 points, 2.5 rebounds per game) leads five other returnees.

Colorado’s newcomers are a diverse bunch. Guard Quinessa Caylao-Do comes from Bellevue High School in Washington State, where as an ESPN three-star recruit, she lead the school to the state title last year. Eleanor Jones, a freshman forward/center, hails from Great Britain, where she played on the U-18 European Championship Division B Team. Ariana Freeman is a redshirt sophomore guard transfer from Louisville who sat out last season after the move. Monica Burich is a redshirt freshman who missed last season due to injury.

Payne said she and her coaching staff have been hard at work instilling a new work ethic in players.

“The foundation is hard work with discipline, which is harder than it sounds when your goal is to be a tough, physical team,” she said. “We practice with a lot of discipline: do your job, run your lane correctly.”

“If we can get them to grasp that, then even if we have to suffer some losses, it will be worth it.”

Payne said patience is necessary.

“We have to be patient, while holding them to a level of accountability,” she said.

But despite the hard work, Payne is ever-optimistic.

“It’ll be a fun season,” she said. “We’re excited.”

The Buffs will take on Air Force, Kentucky and Wyoming before beginning conference play Dec. 30 at USC.