BOULDER - A week from today, four days into 2013, the Colorado men's and women's basketball teams will be into their Pac-12 Conference schedules. Notice it doesn't say the Buffaloes will ease into their Pac-12 schedules.
No easing allowed. Talk about early tests . . . these are finals on the first day of class: On Thursday, Tad Boyle's men's team opens at No. 3 Arizona. On Friday, Linda Lappe's women's squad hosts No. 1 Stanford.
To say both Buffs teams can't wait would be an understatement. To say both will have to wait is a fact. With a final non-conference game remaining, both sets of Buffs had best seize Saturday afternoon's doubleheader for what it offers - last-chance tune-ups before the real work begins.
At noon at the Coors Events Center, the CU men play Hartford. At 2:30 p.m., the No. 23 CU women matchup against New Mexico. Neither CU opponent is to be confused with Arizona or Stanford, but then that's what might be gnawing a bit at Boyle and Lappe. Both hope their players are focused intently enough on finishing non-league duty with 'W's.
"That's our job as coaches," Boyle said. "(Hartford) is an important game because it's our next game. I know everybody (outside) is pointing toward Arizona, but I'm not thinking about Arizona right now."
Neither is Lappe thinking about the top-ranked Cardinal's visit. At 8-4, New Mexico brings a slightly better record to Boulder than Hartford's 7-5 mark, and Lappe envisions the Lobos "coming in here and wanting to prove themselves . . . they're off to a good start."
Lappe's team is off to a better start. The Buffs moved up two positions this week in the AP Top 25 following an 81-45 stroll past Utah Valley three days before Christmas. And for the second consecutive season, CU has a chance to get to 11-0 before conference play begins. Should that happen, the Buffs will present their coach with her 100t h career win, 50 of them coming at CU.
But an 11-0 mark this season would carry more weight than last season's identical non-conference record. The Buffs' non-conference resume is highlighted by a home win against then-No. 8 Louisville. Lappe's second CU team didn't have that kind of quality win before league play began.
"Getting a win over a ranked opponent was really important for us," she said. "Defending our home floor will be important all year long and we feel that we've started to establish that this year. It's something you can build on. It's impressive, but no one's going to remember it at the end of the year. It's going to help springboard us into what we think is really important."
That would be the Pac-12, and Lappe believes her team is "better equipped" to begin league play this season. She can make that claim because the Buffs' post play is a night-and-day upgrade with the addition of redshirt freshman Arielle Roberson and true freshman Jamee Swan, the sold overall performance of sophomore Jen Reese and the continued development and improvement of junior Rachel Hargis.
"Our defense been very solid the last couple of years, but the ability to score easy baskets is really important," Lappe said. "It's been a little harder the past couple of years to do that, but this year it's so much nicer to have a low post presence . . . it helps to be able to have other players step up and get more shots - other than just Chucky (Jeffery)."
One goal Lappe's players set was to accomplish something "uncommon" throughout the season. Reese, who is averaging 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, said the Buffs are "more together as a team this season; everyone is doing a good job contributing. We're getting up there. Our goal is to be uncommon and we're trying to be that."
Lappe also sees the "uncommon" thread developing: "We're on the way," she said. "We're doing some great things. We're practicing well. We're sharing credit better this year. We know we need each other to be successful. They're being great teammates for each other. They're cohesive. There are things that get you to what uncommon means on any particular team in any given year."
Accuse him of looking ahead if you want, but Hartford had Boyle's attention even before the Buffs blew out Northern Arizona 98-51 four days before Christmas.
"If you watch them on tape, they're well-coached, they move the ball well," Boyle said. "They've got three true road wins. They're 7-5 . . . I'm not saying they're world-beaters, but they're a good, solid basketball team with a good coach. They've got five guys that can spread you and they'll pose matchup problems for us. Our big guys are really going to have to guard on the perimeter."
After the romp past NAU, Boyle said goodbye to his players for a four-day Christmas leave. His final cautionary words were to be smart over their break and not spend too much time "sitting on the couch eating turkey and ham."
Sophomore guard Askia Booker went home to Los Angeles and steered clear of the holiday gluttony. He also took his work ethic with him. "I worked out three out of the four days I was home," Booker said. "I took one rest day. My brother and I worked out . . . I just wanted to stay prepared. I had a great game against Northern Arizona (he finished eight of nine from the field) and I don't want to lose that. I just want to keep that going into Pac-12. I have to keep working out every day."
When the Buffs reconvened for a late Wednesday practice, Boyle told them their work that afternoon would determine whether they practiced once or twice on Thursday. Their effort was sufficient enough to make Thursday a one-timer.
Said Booker: "That's a sign people weren't sitting on their butts at home. Everybody came back to compete and was trying to get better. It was actually a players' practice. We had a 40-minute scrimmage and it went pretty well. We competed against the Black team and it was a close game. Coach was pretty pleased with that. At the same time, we were a little winded, but we came to compete, which was good."
In overrunning the Lumberjacks, the Buffs compiled a season-best 24 assists - a total Boyle says is not unrealistic for future games. CU's previous high assist total this season was 13, which was equaled in the first half against NAU.
Of his team's early season assist shortage, Boyle said, "The good thing is we were getting fouled a lot, guys were attacking the basket. When you do that and (the defense) collapses on you you'll get to the free throw line, so there won't be that many assists. But you generate foul trouble for your opponent, points for your team at the free throw line.
"We have to be smart when teams are taking that away from us, getting in the gaps and we can't get to the basket . . . that's when you have to have the assists. A lot depends on who you're playing; out in transition we should have a lot of assists (but) people try and take the transition game away from us."
In addition to watching his team play more unselfishly in its last game, Boyle saw the Buffs heed a lesson learned in a double-overtime home win (85-80) against Texas Southern, which is now 1-11. Boyle and his staff challenged their players to maintain their intensity against an overmatched opponent.
Boyle's question that night for the Buffs: "'Have we matured and grown from that Texas Southern game? We'll find out.' And we found out that we had."
He and Lappe will learn a little more about their teams on Saturday. Pac-12 play looms next week and the Buffs must rush into it. But they mustn't get ahead of themselves.