Run to Sweet 16 raised bar for CU Buffs womens basketball The Denver Post

Between now and the start of the next school year in August, the Colorado women’s basketball roster will change.

The biggest change to the program, however, might be in the expectations.

After reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years, Colorado has raised the bar – at least from the outside.

“Yeah, 100% I think we raised it from an outsider’s perspective,” Buffaloes’ head coach JR Payne told BuffZone this week. “Everything is high expectations internally but to be able to sort of put a benchmark on it in saying, ‘We went to the Sweet 16 and we want to go further,’ I think that’s something that we will do as a group. And I think outsiders can also begin to expect that type of success from us.”

CU hasn’t enjoyed sustained success in nearly two decades, but Payne is well on her way to changing that.

In the last two seasons, the Buffs have won 47 games, the best two-year total for the program since winning 49 in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. They’ve also made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since a four-year run from 2001-04. The Buffs’ winning percentage in Pac-12 Conference games has improved in four consecutive seasons.

This season, CU went 25-9 and had the program’s best conference finish (third) since 2004. CU hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2003 until beating Middle Tennessee and Duke to reach the Sweet 16, where the Buffs were outlasted by Iowa, 87-77 a week ago in Seattle.

What made the run even better to Payne is that the success in the NCAA Tournament was an extension of what CU has been building, rather than it stemming from a Cinderella-type of run where everything fell into place for a few games.

“I thought our upperclassmen and leaders, people like Jaylyn (Sherrod), Frida (Formann) and Quay (Miller), continued to grow in their voice and expectation of each other and accountability of each other,” Payne said. “I thought that grew as the season went on and our confidence grew. So all of the things you know it takes to ultimately be successful kept getting better and better as the year went on. I think that’s why we had the success we had in the NCAA Tournament.”

Years ago, legendary head coach Ceal Barry had CU among the nation’s elite programs, with 12 NCAA Tournament appearances (including six Sweet 16s) in a 17-season period from 1988-2004. Then, the program fell off the national map for a while.

Payne’s squad this season allowed the nation to get reacquainted with the Buffs, but it didn’t happen overnight. Now, she’s aiming to keep it going.

“We’re very excited about where we are and culturally where we are,” said Payne, who signed a hefty new deal this week that keeps her under contract through the 2027-28 season. “We have such elevated expectations of each other and how we train and how we compete and how we treat each other and it’s awesome. I just love where our program is right now.”

At this point, it’s unclear what the roster will look like for the 2023-24 season.

Starting guard Tayanna Jones was the only player who exhausted her eligibility this season. Sherrod and Miller were both seniors, but both have the option to return for a bonus season granted by the NCAA to all players from the 2020-21 campaign because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither went through senior day festivities and neither elected to opt-in for consideration for the WNBA Draft, but they haven’t announced their plans.

In this new era of the transfer portal, CU could also lose some players who want to go to another school. Those decisions will begin to take shape when Payne has individual player meetings next week when the Buffs return from spring break.

Several key players, such as Formann, Aaronette Vonleh, Kindyll Wetta and Tameiya Sadler, are slated to return.

If Miller and Sherrod return, the Buffs are projected for 16 scholarship players, which is one more than the NCAA maximum of 15, so some attrition is expected. How much remains to be seen. The Buffs are bringing in five freshmen and any scholarship spots that open up are likely to be filled through the transfer portal.

“So, there’s a lot of question marks,” Payne said. “Definitely a lot of veterans coming back, but a lot of question marks still.”

There is no question about the level of expectations, however.

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