Pac-12 preview: the University of Colorado, Boulder

This is the twelfth in an annual series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

Colorado enters the fall ready to continue the transformation process they began last season under first-year coach JR Payne.

The Buffs were defibrillated back to life by the charismatic, energy-driven coach. They were very strong to begin the year, knocking off ranked Kentucky in preconference play and not seeing a loss until Dec. 21. But unsurprisingly, they struggled in the Pac-12 against physical, experienced opponents. Colorado finished in a tie for eighth place in the conference and made it to the third round of the WNIT before losing to Iowa. The new tone was set. Now, leading scorer Kennedy Leonard (17.1 points, 5.8 assists per game) and other returners and newcomers are ready to continue where they left off.

The program is looking more like Payne’s own, as four players transferred after the end of last season. Starter Haley Smith graduated, and only five players are back. There are eight newcomers on the roster, and Payne and her returnees are excited about them.

Junior forward and junior college transfer Janea Bunn, at 6-3, has already created a buzz. She has a diverse skill set, according to Payne.

“She’s a great rebounder. She’s an athletic, big, broad, mature player,” Payne said. “She can attack. She’s going to be really good for us this year and fill in some of the empty space that we had inside.”

Mya Hollingshed, a 6-4 freshman guard/forward, is another athlete Payne is excited about. She said Hollingshed is one of the most talented players she’s ever recruited.

“We have a brand-new team….and we’re just ready to get going,” Payne said.

Also returning is junior guard Alexis Robinson (11.4 points per game), who tore her ACL with two games left in the year. She is working her way back into the lineup with a smooth rehabilitation process underway.

“There is never a good time to tear your knee, but she tore it at the best moment of the year that she could have. The season was coming to an end and she was able to have her surgery right away and rehab right away,” Payne said. “She hasn’t been cleared for full five-on-five drills, but she’s playing five-on-five in the half-court.”

“Lexi looks like she’s never been hurt. The doctors are thrilled with the way she’s rehabbed, her strength, everything about it.”

Other newcomers include freshman guards Peyton Carter, Sara Castro and Aubrey Knight, freshman forward Annika Jank and sophomore guard Mathilde Diop – another junior college transfer. Castro and Diop are International players. Key returning reserves are senior center Zoe Correal, sophomore guard Quinessa Caylao-Do and senior guard Brecca Thomas.

Leonard, who has embodied Payne’s hard-driving spirit on the court, said she and Robinson take their new roles as juniors seriously.

“We’re upperclassmen now, so we’re able to, in the storm, in the eye of the storm, we’re able to calm down those around us,” Leonard said. “I’m just going to try to be a better leader as a junior and a point guard. The ball is in my hands a lot, and I have to be the extension of Coach J on the court.”

Payne said the Buffs will not only have a new look, but new strategies this season.

“The biggest difference from this year’s team to last year’s team is we’re significantly bigger, we’re significantly longer,” she said. “So we’ll be able to do a lot more things defensively than we could do last year.”