BOULDER - Trekking undefeated through non-conference play isn't an oddity for the University of Colorado women's basketball team. Fact is, it happened last season when the Buffaloes strolled into their Pac-12 Conference schedule with a glitzy 11-0 record.
However, there are a couple of qualifiers attached that aren't lost on coach Linda Lappe or her returning players. The Buffs' only true road games were at Texas-Corpus Christi and Colorado State, with a holiday tournament in San Antonio preceding Pac-12 play. And nowhere among CU's early 2011-12 opponents was a resident of the Top 25.
No disrespect, but the schedule wasn't what then-junior guard Chucky Jeffery would term laced with "quality" opponents. Said Jeffery: "We were undefeated last season (in non-conference) but we didn't have that quality win. I think we've got a couple under our belts now. To get one against a ranked opponent, well, that would be huge for us."
That huge opportunity presents itself Friday night at the Coors Events Center against No. 8 Louisville. Tip time is 7 p.m. The Buffs are unbeaten (8-0), the Cardinals once beaten (9-1). CU has defeated Top 10 opponents on 13 occasions, but the most recent one wasn't so recent; it was an NCAA Sweet 16 win against No. 5 Stanford in 2002, Lappe's junior season as a Buff.
Lappe characterized Friday night in the CEC as "a great opportunity . . . we finally get a chance to play a Top Ten team. It gives us great experience; we're going to learn a lot from this game. One of the things I thought hurt us in the Pac-12 last year was we didn't really understand that until we got in the middle of the conference. We'll learn a lot Friday night, what we need to get better at and also our strengths and how we're going to be able to beat some of the better teams in the conference."
A win would speak for itself and the progress of the CU program under Lappe. Still, it wouldn't make the overall statement that Lappe wants made in her third season.
"It would be only one win," she said. "If you stop at that and didn't keep improving, it would be a disappointing season. You've got to have perspective. But at the same time, it would get us back on the map. People would start talking about Colorado again - and that's a neat thing. People haven't talked about Colorado for a few years now and it would be fun to have that in terms of a quality program, a good team and also for the future - the NCAA Tournament and postseason play."
Added CU leading scorer Arielle Roberson: "I think more people would definitely recognize Colorado basketball . . . it would be a big boost in a lot of areas, especially in recruiting. But I think it would give our team a lot more confidence and it really would give something to our fans."
When the Cardinals were added to this season's non-conference schedule, the Buffs found themselves flagging the date in the backs of their minds. Lappe credited them for weekly focus and not allowing Friday night to cloud their immediate goals - although it appeared their minds might have been elsewhere at Tuesday night's tip at the University of Denver. But the Buffs snapped back into it and won handily.
"It's something we were looking forward to when the schedule came out," acknowledged Jeffery, who had a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds) in the 83-63 win at DU and is CU's second-leading scorer (11.0 average ) and top rebounder (8.3).
Continued Jeffery on what a win would mean for the Buffs: "It would give us a lot of recognition, especially later on this season when it comes time to pick teams for the NCAAs. We want to seize the moment (Friday). We know there's no pressure on us. We just want to come out and play a good hard basketball game and win it."
Easier said than done. Under fifth-year coach Jeff Walz, the Cardinals have prospered. They made three NCAA Sweet 16 appearances in his first four years, advancing to the Final Four for the first time in school history in 2009 and finishing as the national runnerup. Last season, his team was 23-10, placing sixth (10-6) in the Big East and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Louisville's top scorer is junior point guard Shoni Schimmel, whom Lappe calls "a flashy player . . . she does a lot for them. She likes to shoot the outside shot but she also can get to the rim. She's really a triple threat player. We're going to have to have five players on the court that can defend at all times."
The 5-9 Schimmel, an All-Big East selection last season, averages 12.1 points, just over four assists and has hit 22 of her 64 three-point attempts. Much of her help comes from 6-2 sophomore forward Sara Hammond, who averages 11.2 points and a team-best 7.8 rebounds.
The Cardinals own a plus-9.1 edge in rebounding and have held opponents under 50 points a game (49.4) while scoring 74. They shoot 46.0 percent from the field (32.1 from beyond the arc) and have forced 22.7 turnovers a game. (CU is averaging 15.8.)
The forced turnover stat has Lappe's full attention. Louisville's defensive aim is disruption, which Walz tries to achieve by "changing things up a lot," Lappe said. The Cardinals will play man-to-man defense, switch to a 1-2-2 zone and extend it into half- or full-court pressure.
"They're very long at guard and will try and get their hands on lot of passes," Lappe said. "We're going to have to pay attention to taking care of the ball, hitting the open player and attacking them. Most teams that pressure you don't like it when you attack them. We've got to focus on that."
Offensively, Lappe said Hammond and the Cardinals' post players will "challenge our group on the low block probably more than we've been (challenged) all year." Still, she believes the Buffs match up well with the Cardinals, although adding, "It's always hard to tell on film and on TV until you actually get them in the gym."
The Pac-12 team Lappe thinks Louisville might most resemble is California - and that comparison comes from both teams' "physical style, the way they get up and down the floor, their quickness and athleticism," she said.
Added the 6-1 Roberson, who is averaging 6.1 rebounds a game along with her 16.5 points: "They're very aggressive and physical, especially on the blocks. It'll be a war."
Taking the long-range view, Lappe prefers to think of it as one skirmish in a season-long conflict. Wearing whatever label, the Buffs know it will be telling.