Linda Lappe knew January would be a huge month for her Colorado women's basketball team. The huge unknown was how the Buffaloes would respond.
Now, with the month trickling toward a conclusion, Lappe can afford to reflect on the course her team has taken in Pac-12 Conference play . . . well, almost. This time of year doesn't find coaches in the mood for serious reflection; that comes - if at all - in mid-April when the dribbling has ceased.
But in the context of charting her team's progress, Lappe can take a retrospective look at this month and what it's meant to the Buffs. It's not over yet, but it's been pretty good for them.
After a second consecutive unbeaten run (11-0) through the non-conference schedule, that streak abruptly ended on the first night of Pac-12 play. Game 2 brought another loss. CU's 2013 conference schedule not only happened to be "home heavy" - Lappe's term - it was front-loaded with the league's heavyweights. National top ten residents Stanford and California visited Boulder on the first weekend of league play, offering the Buffs a glimpse of the Pac-12's power programs and how they might measure up.
The Buffs have traveled but once in January - winning at Utah - but the month's back end sends them to No. 7 Cal on Friday and No. 6 Stanford on Sunday. When you start and finish with the best, you hope for the best in between - and that's what Lappe has seen from her team.
After consecutive Pac-12 losses, the Buffs have reeled off four consecutive wins to reach 15-2 overall, 4-2 in conference and national rankings of No. 20 (AP) and No. 23 (USA Today Coaches). Their most recent win was their most dominant, a 79-36 romp last Sunday past Arizona. Their point total in that game matched their weekend opponents' total; they defeated Arizona State 57-43 two days earlier.
Lappe believes opening with Stanford and Cal helped CU raise the bar for whatever was to follow. "I think playing Stanford and Cal first helped us win the next four, because we got a lot better just during the course of those games," she said. "We've said all along, even though it's home heavy early, by the time we get done with January, we will have faced four of the top teams in the league - two of them twice already.
"We have to make sure we get out of January in a good spot - and that's feeling good about where we are, making sure we're playing really well. Some people may look at playing Stanford and Cal the first two games and before January is over we're playing them again, they might look at that as a disadvantage. But you're only going to get better by playing the best. As long as you look at it in the right way . . . it's helped our team to play those two first and I think it's going to help us playing them again."
Here's something else that could help the Buffs in their second go-around against the Bay Area bruisers: They've now seen firsthand what both teams bring: "Not being in shock is going to help," Lappe said. Plus, both teams visited Boulder during Christmas break when CU's handful of "practice guys" was celebrating the holidays elsewhere.
That might not appear to be a big deal, but it is. Lappe doesn't have enough big bodies to replicate in practice what her low post players encounter on game day against Stanford. In wrapping up January against the Cardinal and Bears, "The most beneficial thing now is having our 'practice guys' back from holiday break," Lappe said. "We have some big guys and they do a great job of simulating opponents.
"They did a great job for us before Arizona State and Arizona . . . when we got to the (ASU) game it was like we had just played them for three straight days. They're already doing a great job trying to simulate Stanford and Cal this week. I think it's going to really help us."
After closing this month on the road, the Buffs open February the same way in the same state. Following this weekend in the Bay Area, next weekend has them in L.A. against UCLA (Friday, Feb. 1) and USC (Sunday, Feb. 3). But Lappe isn't frantic over going from home heavy to possibly road weary for month two of the Pac-12 schedule.
Thus far, the Buffs have been very good away from the Coors Events Center, winning all four times they've traveled. "We always enjoy going on the road as a team . . . that's a good thing," she said. "When it comes down to it you're going to play the same number of road games that you are home games. It just so happens that we were really home heavy in the front half (of the Pac-12 schedule), now we have to go four on the road. It's going to be an interesting challenge for us, but we'll be ready.
"We do know we can play well on the road. When we're on the road we're really focused. There's a limited number of distractions and we get to build our team chemistry. You're with your team for four straight days. We have to use that as an advantage."
Also advantageous for the Buffs have been balance and depth. Lappe has been able to use most or all of her bench players over the past four games, which, she said, "has helped us pull ahead in the second half in a lot of games. Every game doesn't go down to the wire; we've been able to make runs midway through second half."
It also will help the Buffs maintain fresh legs heading into February and March. Said Lappe: "We don't have players going 40 minutes every single night, which takes a toll with little injuries and big ones. It allows our players to stay fresh. Our depth has been one of our greatest strengths as a team and really sets us apart from a lot of teams in the league. A lot of them are playing seven to eight players. We have the luxury of having a lot who are playing well."
Also, the time of season is fast approaching when overused freshmen begin to "hit the wall." Some of Lappe's first-year players encountered that last season, mainly because her depth didn't allow her to bring them along at a slower, more beneficial pace. That's changed this season for freshmen Kyleesha Weston (point guard) and Jamee Swan (forward).
Weston is averaging 9.5 minutes in conference play, Swan 13.3. A third freshman, forward Lauren Huggins, has seen limited playing time due to a foot injury. Lappe said Weston and Swan are "starting to understand everything it takes to be great bench players. They continue to grow and get better and it's made our depth even better than what we had at the beginning of the year.
"Even though they might have thought it was not good that they weren't playing early, it's a good thing because they were able to learn and aren't worn down. When you have the luxury of being able to bring your freshmen along in the right way, this is when you see them start to take off and do some really good things. When you have freshmen who have to play early, a lot of times this is when they hit their peak . . . we've had the luxury of bringing them along slowly."
So, Lappe's freshmen and their teammates should be rested and ready to close out January and rush into February and March. I asked her if four consecutive road games in California - the Left Coast Tour - might be a telling stretch, a chance for the Buffs to solidify themselves as one of the Pac-12's top four or five teams.
"There's that opportunity," she said. "We're going to see a lot of character out of our team over the next two weekends. It's going to take a level of toughness to beat any one of these four teams. But our expectation is that we do the things we do, and I really feel like if we do that we'll have some success. But it's going to take great effort every single night. We can't look past anyone of the four - all are very solid, very good, at the top of the league. We have to make sure we keep everything in perspective, not too high, not too low."
Having Stanford and Cal in the rearview mirror when January ends doesn't guarantee CU a strong February and March, but does it help ease the Buffs toward that end?
"We hope so," Lappe said. "As long as we keep getting better and taking steps in the right direction - which I think we've done. We're playing better now than we were five games ago. We've kept improving; we've yet to hit our peak. We do have so many young kids coming off the bench, playing a lot of minutes for us, if we keep going in the right direction we feel like our ceiling is pretty high. We just have to keep moving toward that."