Colorado head coach Linda Lappe didn’t look at the Pac-12 standings last season until mid-February, when just two weeks remained. There was good reason for this. Lappe knew the standings would be skewed, and she might also have reasoned that it’s rarely until that juncture that a team really begins to come into its own.
That might apply to the Buffaloes in 2013-14, as well. After opening the season with nine straight victories, which keyed a rise to a No. 11 national ranking in mid-December, Colorado slumped severely. They lost seven of their first nine games in conference, many of which were punctuated by close defeats. They got away from the basic tenets of Lappe’s coaching philosophy.
But even when the Buffs were winning, something was amiss—they lacked the fire, grit and intensity that had been a calling card in 2012-13, when Colorado earned the first NCAA Tournament bid of Lappe’s tenure, and first for the program since ’04. (A former Colorado player from ’98-02, Lappe took the job in Boulder in 2010.)
Rediscovering the mental edge and defensive dedication embraced by last season’s bunch has helped key the Buffs’ recent surge. This team has a slew of versatile players, none more so than 6-1 sophomore Arielle Roberson, brother of 2013 Oklahoma City Thunder draft pick Andre. Despite suffering two torn labrums—one to each hip—since she came to Boulder (she redshirted the 2011-12 season because of the first), Roberson has become one of the best players in the conference. She leads Colorado in points and rebounding this season.
Lappe spoke to SLAM on Thursday morning, ahead of weekend games against the Los Angeles schools (UCLA and USC), during which the Buffaloes flexed their newfound resolve. On Friday, they handled UCLA 64-42 before dropping Sunday’s game to USC, 66-59. They led the Trojans 59-58 with just under a minute and a half to play, before fading in the final minute.
So thorough was the defensive performance against the Bruins, however, that Lappe told the CU official site it seemed there were six or seven Buffs defenders out on the court at one time. In the second half, the Bruins mustered just 12 points. It hearkened to the great Colorado teams of old.
Colorado’s “worst” loss this season has been by 13 points, and five have come by four points or less. They rank in the top half of Pac-12 teams in almost every key statistical category. Their most recent victory was one of their most thorough displays yet, though they will have to move forward without second-leading scorer and rebounder Jen Reese. Reese broke a bone in her left shoulder against UCLA, the latest injury in a season that has been marred by them.
Now 16-13, (6-12 Pac-12), Colorado heads into this week’s conference tournament (March 6-9) with replenished confidence, tempered by the crippling news about Reese. Still, on a given night, they’ve shown they can hang with anyone. There’s no reason to think they can’t do so when play begins on Thursday in Seattle.
The Buffs’ opponent? Those same Bruins, who’ll have revenge on their minds. It should be a good one.
SLAM: You said on Selection Monday last year that consistency was a hallmark of the ’12-13 team. Have the injuries to Jasmine Sborov, and Lexi Kresl to a lesser extent, thrown a wrench in this season?
Linda Lappe: Consistency hasn’t been a trademark of ours this year, but I wouldn’t say it was because of injuries. Even when we were winning, we didn’t have consistency day in day out in practice like we did the year before. Last year, I can probably count on one hand the number of bad practices we had; this year there wasn’t the same urgency, intensity and understanding of the fact that every practice makes a difference—every practice matters.
When we started having injuries—not just Jasmine—but Lauren Huggins missed weeks at a time, as did Kresl, and there were random concussions. You look at how many people have missed at least one game (just two Buffaloes have appeared in every one), and there’s a significant amount, including [leading scorers] Jen Reese (12.3 points) and Arielle Roberson (12.6 points).
You look at inconsistency, it’s not just from losing one player; it’s from not having the same rotations for many weeks at a time. But a lack of consistency isn’t because of injuries; that kind of evolved through the beginning of the season.
SLAM: The team took a trip to Italy this summer. Did having those 10 extra practices beforehand help accelerate the pursuit of consistency?
LL: No, I don’t think starting earlier leads to consistency, either. What I’ve found is it comes down to leadership off the floor and on the floor, being able to…to have consistency, you have to mentally come ready to play every in every game.
That’s what we had last season—we had a chip on our shoulder. I use the phrase ‘sense of urgency’, and even from the start of this current season, that was lacking. We could get away with it (in non-conference), but as we got later into the season and played really good teams, all of that kind of comes back.
I do feel we’ve played some of our best basketball recently. We’ve played with a lot more consistency and urgency, and we finally saw the team we expected to see in the final three minutes of the first half, and the entire second half, against Arizona. It took being down 20 against them in the first half, but I knew we had it, and we showed we are able to play with it.
SLAM: You mentioned that strong trip to the Arizona schools. Only Stanford has swept them there this season. Is there a sense that this team can use this momentum to make a real push to close out the season?
LL: It’s a mindset. Our team flipped the mindset in the final three minutes of the first half against Arizona, and after that, it was just different. We have a good team, and we’ve lost some games against teams that weren’t necessarily better or more talented, and that’s always frustrating, but it always comes down to a mindset. It comes down to leadership and focusing on what you’re doing—not letting anything outside distract you or losing close games distract you.
It’s about moving forward and understanding what it takes to be successful. There’s not that big of a difference between the top and bottom teams—there’s some difference in talent levels, but there’s also that toughness and grit. You look at Arizona State; it’s not by luck they’ve won so many close games this season. They’ve made their luck. They’ve made every break go their way. That’s what we did last year, and there’s still time left to do that this year. We did it last weekend.
SLAM: It’s impossible to replace Chucky Jeffery, but have you felt her absence, and leadership, this season when games are on the line? (In ’12-13, Jeffery led the Buffaloes in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
LL: Chucky was definitely a leader on the floor for us. She had the ball in her hands down the stretch, and she knew the game. She was really smart. She didn’t have to make all the plays, but she had the confidence to make the right decisions, and there was a comfort level that came with that.
I think we missed (Jeffery’s) intensity level most in practice. She was on a mission to be successful as a senior, as was [team captain] Meagan Malcolm-Peck. (Malcolm-Peck) gets looked over because she didn’t necessarily play a ton (9.0 mpg in ’12-13), but her teammates felt accountable to her, and they wanted to play for both of them. The things Meagan did off the floor and practice were things no one else saw, but her impact was pretty great.
SLAM: That stretch where this team went 2-7 to begin conference play must have taken a toll. Was it among the toughest you’ve weathered as a coach or player?
LL: Yeah, it’s tough, mostly because you know you’re not that far away. You want to change the mindset, but there were also things we weren’t doing well—defense, moving our feet, positioning. So we had go back and do basics: defensive principles, which included knowing where we needed to be.
It was execution, both defensively and offensively. Worked with fundamentals, getting back to basics and simplifying.
SLAM: Both you and (men’s basketball head coach) Tad Boyle exude an uncommon enthusiasm for your jobs at Colorado. When you took the job, in 2010, you said “I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.” Is there a sense of camaraderie, given that you’re both dealing with key injuries that came midway through the season?
LL: I think so. It was a little different in that they lost (scoring and assists leader) Spencer Dinwiddie, but it’s always hard to lose players in the conference season. You just don’t have a whole lot of time to figure it out.
I think that the relationship our two programs have—not just Tad and I, but our assistants and directors of basketball operations as well—to see how well we work together is pretty cool. We’re right across the hall from each other, and we support each other and tell each other to hang in there.
There’s great wins you can share with a staff, and coaches, that understand the ups and downs that inevitably come with coaching and being part of a team. It makes for good camaraderie. We’re each other’s biggest fans. There’s a mutual feeling and bond, and it always makes going through the season that much more special. It’s not just about you. Each team understands what the other is going through.
I do have a lot of enthusiasm at Colorado. I played here, and I had a great experience here, even though I struggled with a ton of injuries, and it wasn’t what I envisioned for myself for basketball. But that actually made it better. It was the right school, the right place. I enjoyed my teammates, the business school, walking around campus, playing at a high level, and doing it together.
It’s a special place, and it’s been our mission as a staff to bring this level of excellence back. We got a little taste last year, but the key is maintained excellence. That’s what my coach, Ceal Barry, brought. It takes time to build sustained excellence. It’s about bringing in good players. Ultimately that’s what you build from.
Nobody can do it overnight. Anybody can have one good year. It’s sustaining it, and you need good players and consistency to continue to build a foundation, and build a culture of who you are as a program and what you stand for.
SLAM: This team signed a covenant for this season, comprised of five commitment statements. Who came up with the idea? What impressed you most about it?
LL: LaTonya Watson, an assistant coach, brought that with her from when she was (an assistant coach) at American University, and we’ve done it for a couple years now. It’s good to go through the process—sometimes that’s even better than what comes out. You do it as a team, and think about who you ‘are’ as a team.
You never want to overlook the process. What Watson was able to do is bring that as something that we all decide on, then write it down and verbalize it, so you’re more apt to stay committed throughout the course of a season.
SLAM: Arielle Roberson can score in a multitude of fashions, and she can guard almost every position on the court. In what areas has she grown most in the last two years?
LL: She really has. With Arielle, the one bad thing is that she had off-season hip surgery—on her other hip—and that makes two surgeries since she’s been here. She pushed through the labrum issue last year, and the decision was to get it done last summer, so after this year, so she’ll have time to build, instead of having to build it up after having surgery this year.
She’s done all that, so now she can really move forward. What she’s done better this season is rebounding the basketball—she’s our leading rebounder (8.1 per game). She has a competitive drive. She wants to be the best, and she wants our team to be the best. That’s the kind of competitiveness you want.
She’s irreplaceable because she can guard anybody and play anywhere. She’s such a versatile player, with how she can score. She’s increased her consistency in her shot, and she has a knack for finishing at the basket. There’s a lot of things she can improve in, and she’s ready to do it. She hasn’t had a full summer since she’s been at Colorado. She can work on the things to take that next step this coming summer.