Brooks: Lappe Eyes Balance From Post-Chucky Buffs
BOULDER - LAC (that's Life After Chucky) begins this season for the Colorado women's basketball team. It's not the only issue to be addressed by Linda Lappe as she starts her fourth season as the Buffs head coach, but it's a good place to start.
For the past four seasons, Chucky Jeffery was the CU women's hoops program's Ms. Utility - and more. She scored, rebounded, assisted and was the Buffs' crunch time go-to girl more often than not.
Now that she's gone, Lappe is looking to someone - actually, everyone - to take up the slack as CU tries to build on last season's fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference and a final ranking of No. 19 in the AP Top 25.
"When you lose somebody like Chucky, not one person replaces the things that she was able to bring," Lappe said Wednesday during her portion of CU basketball media day. "I think we have to have a lot of people step up."
Naming names, Lappe mentioned senior guard Brittany Wilson, who played point guard as a freshman and served as Jeffery's backup for the last couple of seasons. "Her being able to get a lot more time at the point guard position and just her ability to create for her teammates and get to the rim I think is something that she's going to be bringing more of this year, and she knows she has to bring more of," Lappe said.
Then there's Lexy Kresl, a three-point sharpshooter whom Lappe said needs to sharpen her ball-handling in her junior season. Beyond that duo, "I think our wings have to do a better job of handling the ball," Lappe said. "I think everybody can create and I think our team changes a little bit. Instead of becoming one dimensional, I think we have to screen better. I think we've got to get the ball moving on offense a little bit better. What Chucky brought defensively, I think we can definitely play team defense like we have been, and I'm not sure we'll have much of a drop in terms of that regard."
Lappe wants the Buffs to be recognized for their defense and physical play, and on the second count she's counting on 6-4 senior post Rachel Hargis to be the "banger" that sets the bar for CU's toughness.
"When Rachel is tough, our whole team is tough," Lappe said. "When Rachel isn't, our whole team isn't. I think she really sets the tone in terms of that because she is the middle. If a guard drives by a guard she has to be there and she has to be a presence. I think the one thing she has to do a little better job of this year is rebounding the basketball. A lot of times, we would box out and then Chucky would fly in and get the rebound . . . now, it's going to be a matter of who wants that ball. A lot of those (rebounds) have to be Rachel's.
"Rather than growing into her "enforcer" role at CU, she grew up with it. Reared in Robinson, Texas, Hargis says she has "always been more of a physical post player. Maybe it's because I grew up with three brothers. We always fought when we played together, so I'm used to that. I like getting mad and showing people what I can do . . . I think that kind of resonates for the rest of the team. A lot of people don't like a lot of contact and a lot of physicality, but I'm one who's there pushing and shoving."
In practice, Hargis says she frequently goads junior forward Jen Reese into hitting her. "Every day I push these people," Hargis said. "I told Bri (Watts, freshman forward) the other day, 'I'm going to make you mad. I want to see how you are when you fight back.' I was pushing on her and pulling on her and grabbing, and finally she said, 'Thank you . . . do that more often.'"
Increased physicality for Pac-12 play was what Lappe had in mind when she recruited the 6-2 Watts and 6-2 forward Zoe Beard-Fails to play in a front line with Hargis, 6-2 sophomore Jamee Swan and the 6-2 Reese. At 6-1, sophomore Arielle Roberson brings more finesse than pure physicality.
Plus, she's coming off a second hip surgery in two seasons and "is just now starting to get back," according to Lappe. "She's been in practices, but hasn't really been able to improve her game in the offseason. We kind of did that (off-season labrum surgery on the other hip) on purpose so she can now have three more years to really build instead of having to get better and then have a setback and get better. We decided to go ahead and get that done this summer. We maybe understand that her skillset might not be as good as it is going to get over next summer and the next summer after that.
The freshman that caught Lappe's eye the earliest and most often is 6-1 guard/forward Haley Smith. In truth, Smith has stood out because Lappe hasn't noticed her. Confused? Let Lappe explain:
"I've told her this, and I've told other people, I don't notice her. When you can say you don't notice a freshman on the floor, that's always a good thing. She just fits in and she just flows in, and your vision goes to some other players that maybe need your coaching a little bit more or need your motivation or things like that.
"But she comes in and she knows what she's doing. She watches the person in front of her when she's in the lines. She emulates it. She's a very bright person in general, but also a very bright basketball player and I think that will go a long way for her."
Smith, of Sammamish, Wash., arrived in Boulder over the summer prepared to play because she spent last spring preparing. "I knew it would be a big transition," she said. "I wanted to be the best I could be. I think a lot of it has to do with confidence, just going out there and obviously you don't want to look like a freshman on the court. You want to play like you belong and can contribute."
Her game's strength lies in "consistency and being someone (Lappe) can count on, I guess," she said. "Maybe it's not all-star numbers, but consistent play." Lappe will take that from any of her players, and Smith will score more points with her coach because of her commitment to defense.
Lappe's third Buffs team finished 25-7 last season (13-5 in the Pac-12) and made the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004. CU made a surprising and disappointing first-round NCAA Tournament exit, losing at home to Kansas (67-52). But the silver lining, said Lappe, was recognizing the hard work and mind-set needed to reach the NCAAs.
Also, getting to "The Big Dance" reflected the culture change in CU women's hoops. Asked Wednesday if her program was where she thought it might be entering her fourth season, she answered, "Just really in terms of building our culture, and where we're at, yes, it's kind of where we've expected to be. One of my sayings is that you get what you expect.
"So if we didn't expect to be here today, then we probably wouldn't be here today. At the same time, I think as you go forward, the expectations get even better. If we stop working, if we stop expecting better things, then I think we're going to be a standstill. I think you can only be at a standstill for so long. You're either getting better or you're getting worse. We just want to make sure that we keep getting better."