Pac-12 feature: Colorado's Confidence

J.R. Payne is willing to admit it. She’s a little surprised to see her team sitting with an 8-0 record and a No. 18 national ranking in the first week of December.

“If you had told me all of that, I might have thought you were crazy,” Payne confessed.

The Colorado Buffaloes new head coach knew she had talent when she arrived in Boulder. She has watched her players work hard, push themselves and one another and gain confidence over these past months.

And she was more than a little curious to see how that would all translate once the games began.

So far, Payne could not ask for more.

The Buffaloes – who face in-state rival Colorado State on Thursday night - have a marquee win, a 79-69 upset victory over No. 15 Kentucky in Boulder back on November 19. They have a pair of skilled sophomore backcourt players in Alexis Robinson and Kennedy Leonard who want to push the ball, a very efficient offense, an opportunistic defense and more wins than they had all of last season.

The Buffaloes national ranking is their first since 2014.

“Right now, we are shooting the heck out of the basketball,” said Payne, whose team ranks No. 11 nationally in scoring at 84.8 points a game, shooting 46.4 percent from the floor. “When I first got here, the players asked how I like to play and I said I wanted to be in transition in every possession. I remember our two guards just looked at each other and nodded.”

Leonard said that her teammates decided before the season began that last year’s 7-23 finish wasn’t to be repeated.

“People believe in us and we believe in ourselves,” said Leonard, who leads Colorado in scoring at 16.3 points a game. “That is the biggest difference. We learned some tough lessons last year and we didn’t want to be the last place team in the Pac-12 again. The big thing is that we stay hungry and keep working hard on the little things.”

With the Pac-12 season rapidly approaching, Colorado’s biggest tests are to come.

“Hard work doesn’t always equate to a great start,” Payne said. “But we are confident and we have talent.”

“We are really focusing on ourselves. We ask ourselves all the time ‘How are you going to improve today?’” Payne said. “But our conference is incredible, and it’s vital that we are up to competing every night.”

A Sun Devil Rebound

The Arizona State women’s basketball team has given their young, relatively inexperienced team no breaks over the course of this season so far. Charli Turner Thorne challenged her team and with the toughest road trip of the non-conference schedule in front of them, it’s time to see how they respond.

“Half our team is new. We have three seniors, and a lot of inexperience,” Turner Thorne said. “We knew we could beat (Maryland), but we focused on wanting to win and not what we had to do to win. It was a snowball game. Our seniors hadn’t really embraced how much they had to do, and they weren’t doing it. But after that, everybody really woke up. It was definitely something we hadn’t experienced as a program in a long time.”

The Sun Devils followed up with a 69-63 win over 19th-ranked Florida, a game in which they were down by 12 in the fourth quarter and came back to win.

Arizona State is about to embark on its toughest week of the non-conference, going on the road for games against No. 15 Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State.

In fact, Arizona State will play five of their next seven games on the road.

“We keep getting better,” Turner Thorne said. “It’s challenging, but it’s fun. We are talented. We have the pieces. We just have to be patient.”

Plum Position

Kelsey Plum isn’t just in position to take over the all-time Pac-12 scoring lead, but to put it out of reach for anyone else.

Following Plum’s 30-point game against Cal State Northridge on Wednesday night, the Huskies’ senior guard needs 23 points to pass Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike as the league’s all-time leading scorer. And the conference season has even started yet.

If Plum keeps scoring at this pace – she currently leads the nation at 29.7 points a game – she’s going hold on to that record for a very long time.

News and Notes

The breadth of talent in the Pac-12 is evident in the week player honors. Four different players have been chosen as the conference player of the week so far, and four different players have been named the freshman of the week…The Women of Troy overcame the adversity of finding out that fifth-year senior Jordan Adams will miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury by pulling off a big win over Texas A&M. In fact, USC has won five straight games, and scored the most points in a single game since 1986 with a 111-95 win over Sacramento State…Oregon sits just outside the national rankings this week with 65 points. The Ducks have not been ranked in the AP Top 25 poll since December 15, 2003.

Helping a Friend

Former Cal center Rama N’diaye is battling breast cancer and her Bears family is showing up to support her.

N’diaye, a native of Senegal who came to Berkeley as a 17-year-old international recruit, finished her Cal career in 2011, moving on to play professionally in Iran, Spain and Turkey. She retired from basketball in 2014, moved to San Diego and was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer at the age of 29.

N’diaye is currently undergoing treatment and enduring financial hardship, as she is unable to work. The Cal women’s basketball program has organized Rebounds for Rama. Donors can pledge a specific amount based on the total number of rebounds the Bears collect this season, or make a flat donation at pledgeit.org/reboundsforrama.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.

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