BOULDER - It might be a stretch for a college junior to be reflecting on how it was "back in the day," but Brittany Wilson vividly recalls how things were in Colorado women's basketball a mere three seasons ago.
"In my freshman year," "B-Wil" remembered the other day, "we got down to six players when we played Iowa State."
Technically, the Buffs were down to eight players, but first-year coach Linda Lappe's primary rotation that day was six - with the five starters playing at least 33 minutes each in a game that pushed into overtime. But here's Wilson's point: Her first CU team didn't have a deep end; most of the time it flailed away in shallow water.
Things have changed. Big-time.
The CU team that opens its 2012-13 season Sunday afternoon against Idaho (2 p.m., Coors Events Center) has plenty of bodies that play plenty well. What's more, the daily competition goes from whistle to whistle and isn't for the gentle and meek.
"Coaches have to stop practice sometimes to get people off the floor," Wilson said. "We haven't had the competition on the floor like this. You have to come out and compete for your spot every single day, because there's 13 girls that can play. If you don't come out ready to defend your position - if you are a starter - or to earn your playing time, either you're not going to start or you're not going to get that playing time."
That's exactly the way Lappe and her staff want it, although her priority as Sunday's opener approached was identifying enough consistency among those talented 13 players to pencil in a starting lineup. As of Tuesday, she had "no idea," but she will by Sunday morning.
It's a good problem to have, one that will sort itself out as Lappe's very balanced bunch advances. If her number of better players this season creates a different kind of dilemma, it's still one she relishes. She and her staff "take a lot of stock in who brings it every day in practice" and use that as a guide in determining how 40 minutes on game day is split.
"But day to day that changes with our team," Lappe said. "That's been the most unsettling thing as a coach - the consistency of our players and who we think can provide us major minutes during this first game. It's something that as the year goes along will change and fluctuate. That's probably been the hardest thing for me. But there's good in that because now you do have 10-12 players that all could start on any given day."
Lappe has a pretty good handle on two members of Sunday's starting five. That pair would be senior wing Meagan Malcolm-Peck and "B-Wil," who sees herself in the next layer of leadership below Malcolm-Peck and senior point guard Chucky Jeffery.
Here's how Wilson perceives her game and her role: "Things have slowed down for me. I'm a junior now, I get the game. Although I played in two different conferences, now for me it's like I don't have to think so much. I can just go out and play . . . And now, I see myself as leader in helping (teammates) to follow. As Meagan and Chucky are leaders, I help others follow those two. If Meagan or Chucky is saying things that somebody might not be getting, then it's usually me or the next person to tweak it a little so it is understood."
That's a good position for now, but it probably will evolve into a full-blown take-charge role. And if not this season, then surely next, when she is a senior. Whichever of those scenarios occur, Lappe feels fortunate to be able to watch it happen.
Her first two CU teams have a combined 39-30 record and a pair of WNIT appearances. Showing further progress in year three is paramount, and Lappe believes it can happen because of leadership that hadn't fully developed in years one and two.
"This is the first year to have some junior-senior leadership that has played a lot for our first two or three years," Lappe said. "That's definitely a bonus; it allows us to take that next step. We've never had that (and) it differentiates this team from some of the others. We also have some good talented young players who are maybe further ahead than some of the other freshmen we've had at different times."
How far ahead? Last season, CU played Idaho at the CEC on Dec. 4, winning 68-59. Tape of that game, said Lappe, shows this team - young as it is - to be further along in early November than her 2011-12 squad was in early December.
"We look better now than at that point," said Lappe, adding that the loss of senior post Julie Seabrook and her court communication on screens and setting the defense might be a temporary setback. "But overall we're further ahead and much, much deeper."
Wilson agreed, noting that in this season's pair of exhibition games, the Buffs "got it going early . . . last year we struggled (early) to get it going. There were stretches where we didn't score for five or six minutes at a time, but this year the freshmen are catching onto the offense and we have a lot of upperclassmen now."
Although forward Jen Reese is entering her sophomore season, Lappe considers Reese well-seasoned. Reese does, too. She's been waiting for Sunday's opener longer than most; she missed last season's last six games with an orbital eye socket injury and is wearing protective goggles now, although "it's a hassle," she said. Her vision slowly is returning to normal, but still can be a little fuzzy now when she gazes upward when under the rim. So she uses her neck more and tilts her head.
But Reese clearly sees this: "These players have more confidence and that brings out more confidence in the team. We have leaders in Meagan and Chucky, when she's the point guard. And I feel like we've been communicating better. The freshmen have been doing really well listening to us and improving every day in practice . . . I think we're just more prepared."
More focused on a daily basis, too. Every team has reaching the NCAA Tournament as a goal, and that includes the Buffs, who could wind up playing in NCAA first- and second-round games in their building. But the approach this season is different, said Reese: "Last year we had a main goal of going to the NCAAs, but we weren't more concerned with how to get there . . . this year we're setting goals that we can reach (daily) to get to that level. That's what I like about this year."
Reese says she's among the Buffs whose confidence has skyrocketed, plus she's stronger and better conditioned.
And here's something else - aside from the depth, the talent and the confidence - that Wilson says sets this team apart from others: "We've got 13 girls with heart, 13 girls that will punch you back if you punch them . . . we're all competitors, that's what different and special about this team."
Lappe is hoping it all translates into a special year. It gets underway on Sunday afternoon.