FORT COLLINS – The Colorado women’s basketball team has arrived . . . sort of. The Buffs begin the 2013-14 season here Tuesday night ranked in the top 25 in both major polls, sitting as high as No. 17. But they’re neither sitting contentedly nor resting comfortably.
That Linda Lappe’s fourth CU team has turned enough heads to receive a preseason ranking can be a good thing, and Lappe is here to tell you why: “It always helps because it’s harder to break in if you’re not (ranked). But to us, all it really does is show that people respect us around the country and that’s all we’re looking at it as.
“We’re going to get people’s best shots . . . we’re no longer an unknown. It makes us a better team because we have to be ready for the game, but (being ranked) doesn’t matter to us.”
Of course, it’s better than being unranked, a situation the Buffs became all too familiar with before they began a nearly season-long flirtation with the top 25 in 2012-13. They finished last season 25-7 overall, 13-5 in the Pac-12 Conference (fourth place) and were No. 19 in both final pre-NCAA Tournament weekly polls.
This season, CU has been picked by Pac-12 coaches to finish third, which might be more a gauge of respect than the national polls. But, like that recognition, it doesn’t add another ‘W’ or two and it won’t even rate as an afterthought come March.
Still, said junior forward Jen Reese, it’s always nice to be noticed: “Yeah, I feel like we’re respected now. And coach has mentioned that coming into the Pac-12 (in 2011) we weren’t respected. We had to earn it, and I feel like we did that last year. But during the season, (the ranking) doesn’t matter because we’ve got to play well. We’ve got a target on our backs now, which is kind of fun. It’s exciting but it doesn’t mean much right now.”
What interests Lappe more than anything else is weekly/daily improvement – “coming to work every day, getting better every day, jelling as a team every day. We do all the things we can control and the rest of the stuff should fall into place.”
Lappe wants that process to begin with her cornerstone – defense. “That’s who we are, and we haven’t been really happy with it,” she said. “We expect our defense to be way ahead of our offense, and that’s how we win games – especially at this time of the year. We weren’t working hard enough on the defensive side, we weren’t getting the help side. We spent about three days (last week) working on all defense, and that really showed. It’s been nice because now we can come back and put together a more normal practice and keep our defensive intensity that we gained over the last couple of weeks.”
The Buffs want it to show in Moby Gym (7 p.m.) against Colorado State, said junior forward Jen Reese: “We’re tired of playing each other in practice; we’re ready to start this.”
In the wake of CU’s Chucky Jeffery era, which saw Jeffery lead in most statistical categories on a nightly basis during her career, this might be Lappe’s most versatile team. For experimental purposes for a variety of reasons – a foot injury to senior Brittany Wilson among them – players have been plugged into different positions.
The 6-2 Reese, very pleased about finally shedding the protective goggles she sported after an orbital fracture, has played the post, a wing, even a shooting guard spot – an assortment she calls “kind of cool because it makes us tougher to guard. Everyone can score in so many different ways.”
That’s what Lappe had in mind during the recruitment of players like 6-1 freshman Haley Smith, of Sammamish, Wash. Smith is listed as a guard/forward, but she’s seen some preseason duty in the post. And 6-0 junior Jasmine Sborov has done preseason dabbling at point guard.
“We recruited versatile players, versatile within their position,” Lappe said. “Over last year, over the summer, everyone has worked on their game, and when everyone works on their game they add different skill sets.”
When Sborov moves to the point – and her confidence is growing there – Lappe said the Buffs take on another dimension: “It means one of our post players has to move to the three, and Jen has been somebody that has done that. She went through the Mines (exhibition) game playing pretty much the three guard. I don’t see that as being done consistently once games start but she’s comfortable with it. And when she’s at the three, we’re really big; we rebound well and will provide matchup problems for a lot of people.”
CU breezed through the Mines exhibition 91-42, with five players reaching double figures. Sophomore Arielle Roberson scored 20 and redshirt freshman Lauren Huggins added 15. Both players showed well in recuperative roles – Roberson coming back from a second off-season hip surgery and Huggins from a stress fracture that sidelined her for all but five games last season and resulted in her being granted a medical hardship.
The 6-1 Roberson, said Lappe, “is coming along slowly. We’ve tried not to overdo it with her,” which means limiting her practice time when necessary. Lappe said the Pac-12’s 2012-13 freshman of the year “is about where I thought she would be . . . she’s not 100 percent yet – not the Arielle we’ll see in February, I hope. But she’s doing a great job.”
Huggins is a long-range sharpshooter who should complement junior Lexy Kresl. Huggins hit five of her nine three-point attempts in the exhibition game and, said Lappe, has “NBA range . . . she came in in much better shape and learned so much last year even though she wasn’t playing. We look at her as a sophomore with limited experience. She’s going to be good for us – and not just because of her outside shooting.”
The Buffs should be able to hold their own inside with 6-4 senior Rachel Hargis, 6-2 Jamee Swan, Reese, Roberson, and the addition of a pair of 6-2 freshmen in Zoe Beard-Fails and Bri Watts. Swan exemplifies the versatility Lappe likes in this group of players and says she “is in so much better shape than last year . . . really, everybody is ahead of where we were last year. I’m real excited to see where as a team we’re going to go, how well we’re going to do.”