Brooks: Wearing Bullseye, Unbeaten Buffs Head For Utah
BOULDER - Women's basketball in the Pac-12 Conference is not exactly Stanford and The 11 Dwarfs . . . but it's close. Any preview of the league's debut season begins with The Cardinal - that is, any preview that begins at the top and works its way down.
Start from the other direction and the picture gets a bit fuzzy, at least from second-year Colorado coach Linda Lappe's perspective.
"I told our team the other day I think we could finish anywhere from two to twelve - it's that wide open," Lappe said. "In years past in the Big 12, we were trying to be six to eight. We felt like that was a pretty good goal. Now, we're hitting the Pac-12 with only one ranked team (Stanford is No. 4)."
The conference conglomeration below The Cardinal, continued Lappe, features "some very competitive teams, some very good teams. We can't take anyone lightly, we have to be ready for everybody. That's the exciting part about it - we're going to have to be ready to play every single night. We can win every single night, which is good for our fans and good for our team to know that."
Through non-conference play, the Buffs did exactly as Lappe suggested - they won "every single night." At 11-0, they enter Pac-12 play on Saturday at Utah as the conference's only undefeated team. The Buffs haven't played a killer schedule - by contrast, Stanford's 10-1 record is marred only by a 10-point loss at No. 2 Connecticut - but they've jelled into a team that believes in itself and is thinking 'W' every time the shoes hit the court.
That brand of confidence isn't available on eBay, or as Lappe puts it, "Stepping on the floor with confidence doesn't just happen on game day. It happens in June, July, August, September, October, November . . . you're confident when you know you've put in the hard work. Our kids know they've put in the hard work. They've been in the weight room, gotten better there. We ran in the summer and are in good shape. We know we've gotten better skill-wise. The confidence is there because of all the things that have taken place up to this point.
"Last year was part of the process . . . this year, it's been an every-game thing. We knew we were going to win in Game 1, Game 5, Game 7 . . . it's been good to see that transformation for them. I'm not sure last year we would have that same level of confidence, especially on the road. And it's not false confidence, that's the important part of it. You can see in our players that it's not false confidence. They're stepping on the floor like winners, like competitors, like a team that is determined to do something special."
And that's what will be required for CU to continue its unbeaten streak through the early portion of Pac-12 play. The Buffs' first three conference games are on the road (at Utah, Washington and Washington State) and their first two conference home contests are against California and Stanford.
"It's not the best first five games you could ask for, definitely not," Lappe said. "So we're going to have to be good right out of the gates. But we've been preparing for this since August; we'll be ready. And our team is fired up to start conference. They've been ready for the last month and a half."
Added junior forward Meagan Malcolm-Peck: "We finally get to test ourselves and play against some tougher competition. We're really excited."
In its preseason forecast, media covering Pac-12 women's basketball didn't expect much from the Buffs. In fact, very little was expected. The media forecast pegged CU as No. 12. The Buffs flared.
"As soon as that came out, it obviously upset everybody and made us want to prove those people wrong and get some respect," Malcolm-Peck said. "Maybe they were unaware, maybe the couple of years when we didn't do well (before Lappe's arrival) had something to do with it."
"The only reason I can think of is that (the media voters) don't know who we are yet," added freshman post Jen Reese, who along with freshman guard Lexy Kresl has played a vital role in CU's early resurgence.
If the Buffs began the non-conference season as a relative unknown in the conference sisterhood, that's not the case now. Their 11-0 record - the second-best start in school history - has done more than turn heads; it has affixed a bullseye to their backsides.
"It's a little different going into games and having a record that has that big zero at the end of it," Lappe said. "When you don't have a loss everybody wants to give you that first one."
That's what Lappe has been preaching to her team about the Utes, who are 7-4 and in a dead heat with the Buffs as the Pac-12's top defensive teams (Utah allows 51.5 points a game, CU 51.7). The Utes, said Lappe, are strong in the post and have been successful by controlling the game's tempo: "They'll want to dictate what they get offensively . . . they'll play to their strengths and try and make you play to your weaknesses."
Lappe's top comparison to a previous CU opponent was to methodical Creighton, nipped by the Buffs (52-49) on a three-pointer at the buzzer by Kresl. The Utes' top scorer is 6-4 sophomore Michelle Plouffe, a Canadian (Edmonton, Alberta) who averages 15.9 points and was the Mountain West Conference freshman-of-the-year last season.
"Their post players are the keys; we have to make sure we box out," said the 6-2 Reese, who is averaging 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds. "We also need to run on them a lot . . . transition points are big for us."
The steady Malcolm-Peck, who averages 5.2 points and the same number of boards, believes the Buffs "match up very well" with the Utes. But, she added, "We don't want to play into their hands; we want to play our style of basketball."
If that happens, CU can successfully debut in its new conference. Malcolm-Peck called the opportunity to play in two leagues - the Buffs left the Big 12 after a being members since 1996 - "a really good experience . . . not many people get to do that. Coming from the Big 12 to the Pac-12, I think we're a more physical team and really understand how tough the competition was in the Big 12. We feel like we can do very well in the Pac-12; we feel like we can make an impact."
That's not a roundly shared opinion, but to the Buffs it doesn't matter. From a national perspective, there's Stanford and the rest. For now, being the best of the rest is a pretty good goal.