For years, the Colorado women’s basketball team has had to scratch and fight for wins and respect.
Based on the national rankings released Tuesday, the Buffaloes now have that respect, but the fight to climb won’t change as they gear up for the 2023-24 campaign.
Coming off its first Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years, CU landed at No. 20 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches’ poll.
“Honestly, I don’t really worry about that too much,” head coach JR Payne said at CU’s annual basketball media day on Tuesday. “We’ve recruited a bunch of players with these massive chips on their shoulder, people that were under recruited, they don’t have any stars next to their names out of the recruiting process, and we like it that way.
“We have a bunch of players that love to be an underdog and love to be sort of overlooked and love to have something prove. Whether we were ranked No. 1 or not ranked at all, it’s just built in our DNA that we want to prove people wrong, we want to prove that we’re really good. No matter what the ranking is, this team will have that mindset. We’re excited and honored to be preseason top 25 … but we’re motivated to continue to climb that ladder.”
This is the first time since 2013 that CU is ranked in the preseason, as the Buffs were No. 19 in both polls that year.
CU has earned its preseason ranking because of what it has accomplished over the past few seasons.
Payne took over a reeling program when she was hired in the spring of 2016, with the Buffs fresh off a 7-23 record and last-place finish in the Pac-12. During her first four seasons at CU, the team never finished higher than ninth in the conference.
Then, in 2020-21, the Buffs were sixth and made a deep run in the WNIT. That was followed by a fifth-place finish in 2022 and a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years. Last season, they were even better, going 25-9, finishing third in the conference and winning their first NCAA Tournament games since 2003.
Going in her eighth season, Payne returns nearly the entire core from last year’s team, plus a pair of key transfers, as the Buffs aim to take another step forward.
“Back-to-back years (in the NCAA Tournament) is wonderful,” Payne said. “For us, the expectation is every year. How deep we go in the tournament will depend on our personnel, our health and injuries and things like that.
“Definitely the goal is every single year to be among the top teams in the country. We recruit that way, we talk that way, we train that way, so I believe that people should start anticipating that we’ll be that team every year.”
Last year, CU became that team because of a hungry group of veterans. Those veterans are still here and Payne doesn’t believe the hunger is gone.
“I would be worried if we were not locked in a daily basis, but I trust our upperclassmen to make sure we stay that way,” she said.
The schedule certainly will keep the Buffs locked in, as they hit the ground running. They’ll open the season on Nov. 6 in Las Vegas against defending national champion and preseason No. 1 LSU.
“LSU opening night will be an incredible test for us. It’s one that we’re excited about,” Payne said, while adding the rest of the schedule presents plenty of challenges, as well. “It’s going to be a great year for us. We’re ready.”