- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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This weekend, the Colorado women's basketball team goes on the road to play No. 7 California on Friday and No. 6 Stanford on Sunday. And for the first time in years, I'll be checking the box scores.
Watching CU's return to prominence reminds me of one of my favorite stories from my playing days with the Buffaloes. It involves Denver Post sports columnist and ESPN "Around the Horn" panelist Woody Paige.
I don't think he'll mind if I tell it.
The year was 2003, during my junior season, and Paige was in attendance on a January afternoon at CU's Coors Events Center to watch the men's basketball team play in-state rival Colorado State. Having spotted Paige sitting courtside, my teammate Tera Bjorklund and I approached him at halftime. We asked if he would consider making a return trip to Boulder the following afternoon to watch us play Iowa State. Paige said he would -- absolutely. We thanked him profusely and scampered away high-fiving.
Covering one of our games wasn't pure charity on Paige's part; we had gone to the Elite Eight the year before. Still, I wasn't convinced he would show up. But there he was the next day, sitting courtside as we tipped off against the Cyclones, true to his word. We won the game 64-63 on a last-second bucket by freshman Amber Metoyer, and Paige wrote his column about her, the local kid made good.
I remember reading his words and feeling proud. Colorado's program was being passed into the hands of capable young players, and I was excited to root for the Buffs for years to come.
But that's not exactly what happened.
Ceal Barry, who won 427 games in her 22 seasons as CU's head coach, retired in 2005. Her replacement, Kathy McConnell-Miller, came to Boulder after reviving the University of Tulsa's program, but she had no ties to Colorado hoops. Like any new coach, she wanted to put her own stamp on things. So she brought in her own staff and focused squarely on the future, which meant figuring out how to stay competitive in the Big 12, a conference that routinely places seven teams in the NCAA tournament.
Those rebuilding efforts stalled, and as the program struggled to regain its foothold on the national level -- McConnell-Miller finished 65-88 in her five seasons at CU -- I also became busy covering the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. Years went by where I didn't give CU basketball much more than a passing thought.
That changed in 2010, when Colorado hired Linda Lappe as head coach. She was only 30 at the time, but she had already spent three seasons at the helm of Metro State in Denver and -- more important for Buffs fans -- she was a CU alum, having played for Barry from 1998-2003 (and on the court with me for four seasons).
"When Coach Lappe came in, she was that connection to what the program had been," senior forward Meagan Malcolm-Peck recently told espnW. "That was important."
Malcolm-Peck knows the history better than others. She was born in Boulder and attended basketball camp at CU as a kid. She had season tickets with twin sister Brenna and their parents. "My freshman year, there wasn't a sense of tradition or pride in Colorado, and that seemed weird to me," said Malcolm-Peck, who was a sophomore when Lappe took over. Rekindling that pride included redecorating with an eye toward the past.
"Now, we walk out of our locker room and see pictures of the teams that have done so well here," Malcolm-Peck said. "That's been a major shift, knowing what's expected of Colorado and wanting to get the program back there."
Mission accomplished. The Buffaloes, 15-2 overall, are ranked No. 20 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. In Monday's Bracketology, Charlie Creme penciled in Colorado as a No. 5 seed for the NCAA tournament.
This weekend, during that brutal road trip to Cal and Stanford, the Buffaloes will try to avenge their only two losses. But barring a regular-season nosedive, CU is poised to earn its first trip to the Big Dance since 2004.
Lappe understands the importance of highlighting the program's winning history (12 NCAA tourney appearances between 1988 and 2004) while also allowing her team to shape its own identity. Banners and old photos are nice, but today's players don't exactly want to be watching video of the 1995 Big 12 title game, giggling at their poufy-haired predecessors running around in short shorts.
"Obviously, you can overdo it," Lappe said. "This is a new era, after all. We're not trying to be exactly like one of those teams, but we want these players to take pride in all of the people and teams that came before us."
Malcolm-Peck describes the moment earlier this season when she and teammate Chucky Jeffery, another Colorado native, found out that the Buffaloes were back in both top-25 polls in nearly a decade. The two exchanged a look that said, "Oh my god, it finally happened."
When Lappe took over in the spring of 2010, Colorado had just finished its penultimate season in the Big 12 (the Buffs are now in the Pac-12) with a conference record of 3-13, second to last in the league. Her first season in Boulder, the Buffaloes finished 18-16; last season, they were 21-14 and lost in the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
While the turnaround was impressive, last season's WNIT ending -- instead of making the NCAA tournament -- was a particularly difficult result for Lappe's team to stomach. At the beginning of the season, she and her coaching staff laid out a specific goal: Make The Tourney. When the Buffs fell short, there was a sense of disappointment that didn't jibe with how much the squad had improved, how close it had come.
"We felt like a failure when we didn't make it," Malcolm-Peck said.
So Lappe decided to take a different approach to her goal-setting strategy. "What you don't want is to get in the middle of the year and realize you can't meet the goal you set at the beginning, and then everything goes downhill," she said.
The motto for this season: Be Uncommon -- on a daily basis, in whatever ways possible. Do an extra set in the weight room; run through the line rather than slowing to the finish during drills. It sounds simple, but Lappe wants her players to always be thinking how they can set themselves apart.
So far, it's working.
"We're back to thinking big," Malcolm-Peck said.
As a CU alum, so am I.
In December, Colorado returned to the Top 25 for the first time since 2008. Now, Colorado is 15-2, ranked No. 20 and appears poised to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2004.