After a 2012-13 campaign that saw Colorado win 25 games, their most since 1995-96, and make an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2004, a 19-15 follow up in 2013-14 might seem like a disappointment.
And in many respects, it is. Especially considering CU was ranked as high as 11th nationally in January, holding a 10-1 record heading into Pac-12 play. But both the ranking and the record were fairly deceiving.
Head coach Linda Lappe and her team usually maintained - and wisely so - that the ranking was a result of their outstanding season in 2012-13, and not completely a reflection of their work during the current campaign. CU's 10-1 non-conference record was aided by a fairly easy schedule, although the Buffs did beat Iowa, who won a game in the NCAA tournament, and kept things tight in a road loss to Louisville, who came excruciatingly close to making their second straight final four.
A January slide, hastened by injuries to Jasmine Sborov, Lexy Kresl, and Lauren Huggins, and a much-improved Pac-12 conference, set the Buffs firmly outside of the NCAA at-large picture. But CU showed improvement during the month of February, as well as in the Pac-12 tournament, indicating that 2014-15 could hold promise for the Buffs.
Lappe's outstanding first full recruiting class enters its senior season in Boulder, with the exception of Arielle Roberson, who redshirted her freshman year. It's a class that would like nothing more than to cap off their careers with a second NCAA berth.
That being said, let's look at what next year's Buffs might look like.
Colorado loses Brittany and Ashley Wilson, both of whom brought grit, tenacity, and a certain swagger only a Wilson twin could provide to the CU perimeter. The only returner with significant game experience at the point guard position is Kresl, who is more of a natural shooting guard. Kresl paced the Buffs with 95 assists, and will likely continue to develop into more of a comfortable ballhandler over the offseason. Providing some depth will be Brecca Thomas, a diminutive, sharpshooting point guard from the Houston area. Lappe characterized Thomas as the type of player who "plays with a lot of heart and energy." Desiree Harris saw limited minutes during conference play and will provide depth next year, as she filled in well during conference play when Brittany Wilson and Kresl went down with injuries.
Starters: Thomas, Kresl
Colorado's January skid underscored just how valuable Sborov is to her team. After just three Pac-12 games, Sborov was forced to sit the remainder of the season with a foot injury, and the Buffs struggled without her, losing five of their first six games without the senior-to-be from Round Rock. She'll come back next year looking to continue what had the potential to be a breakout 2013-14 season. Sborov displayed a vastly improved mid-range game, as well as the ability to get to the free throw line. Sophomore-to-be Haley Smith took Sborov's place in the starting lineup and showed many of the same strengths, knocking down mid-range jumpers along the baseline, and playing tough defense. After being granted a medical hardship by the NCAA, Huggins got a second chance at a freshman season. She finished second on the team in made three-pointers with 36, only two behind Brittany Wilson. If Huggins can stay healthy next season, she'll stretch the defense, taking some pressure off of Colorado's outstanding group of post players.
With Stanford's all-everything forward Chiney Ogwumike graduating, Colorado may rival California for the most talented and most deep frontcourt in the Pac-12. Roberson followed up her Pac-12 freshman of the year 2012-13 season by leading the Buffs in scoring and rebounding, while grabbing all-Pac-12 second team accolades. Roberson will have her first chance to improve her game during the offseason this year, as she spent the last two summers rehabbing from hip surgeries. Jen Reese is arguably CU's best pure scorer. Reese has a knack for knowing where she needs to be on the floor to score, and she can reliably hit any shot inside the arc, guarded or unguarded. A combination of Roberson and Reese's styles, Jamee Swan showed she can hit the 15-footer, or play with her back to the basket. Swan's improvement during the course of Pac-12 play was a big reason why CU regained its footing towards the beginning of February. An excellent finisher around the basket, Zoe Beard-Fails had a solid freshman campaign, struggling at times with foul trouble. She will likely take some of the minutes vacated by departing senior Rachel Hargis. New next year in the frontcourt will be redshirt freshman Bri Watts and incoming freshman Zoe Correal, from the Los Angeles area.
Starters: Reese, Roberson
The Rest of the Pac
Colorado learned the hard way this season that the level of play has increased in the Pac-12. The Pac-12 went from getting four teams in the NCAA field in 2013 to getting five for 2014. That number should increase again for 2015. With Stanford's Ogwumike graduating, and Oregon State returning all but one player on a team that went to the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Beavers could challenge for a Pac-12 title. California returns all-Pac-12 players Brittany Boyd - the league's best point guard, and Reshanda Gray. USC recaptured some former glory with former star player Cynthia Cooper-Dyke at the helm. A strong recruiting class will give the Women of Troy a chance to return to the NCAA tournament. UCLA brings in the consensus top recruiting class in the nation, with three McDonald's all-Americans heading to Westwood in the fall. Colorado went 0-4 against the Washington schools this year, and they project to be a handful again next year, with Pac-12 freshman of the year Kelsey Plum and Jazmine Davis returning for the Huskies, and Lia Galdeira and Tia Presley coming back to Pullman. Oregon, a bottom-feeding but talented group, said goodbye to former Lakers head coach Paul Westhead and lured Kelly Graves away from Gonzaga, where he built one of the nation's top mid-majors from the ground up. There's a good chance nine Pac-12 teams will feel like they have a great chance to make the field of 64 next season.
Three Things I'd Like to See in 2014-15
- An old Big XII foe in the Coors Events Center for the Omni Hotels Classic. Colorado has coasted through its last three non-conference schedules, with a combined 32-1 record. CU's win over a top ten Louisville program in December of 2012 helped propel them to an excellent Pac-12 season. Bring in a strong program from the Big XII (maybe Iowa State or Nebraska) to challenge the Buffs in their annual non-conference tournament. Plus, Colorado will only face Stanford and California once in the Bay Area next season, so the only chance for Buffs fans to see an elite program will likely be during the non-conference season.
- A year without injury. CU's been able to stay away from the ACL tears that have been so pervasive in the women's game. But more minor injuries have struck at the most inopportune of times for the Buffs. Hargis hurt her knee before CU's NCAA tournament game against Kansas last season, and this season, minor injuries prevented Colorado from establishing continuity on the floor.
- A return to the NCAA tournament - and a top four seed. I know - it sounds ridiculous to wish for such a high seed after a WNIT season, but remember, Colorado went from the WNIT in 2011-12 to a five-seed in the NCAA tournament in 2012-13. The gap between a five-seed and a four-seed expands in 2015, as first and second rounds return to the home arena of the top four seeds in each region. A lot would have to go right for CU to host in 2015, but I don't think it's entirely out of the question.
Next year represents something of a crossroads for Lappe's Buffs. Return to the NCAA tournament, and Colorado will once again be viewed as one of the top up-and-coming programs on the west coast. Sputter again in the Pac-12, and Lappe will be through five years with only one NCAA appearance to show for it. Knowing the talent that returns and the coach who leads them, my bet is on the former.