First-year coach JR Payne trying to steer Buffaloes back to winning ways

First-year Colorado coach JR Payne is trying to guide the Buffs back to their first NCAA tournament since 2013. Courtesy Scott Arnold/Colorado Athletics

BOULDER, Colo. -- Colorado guard Kennedy Leonard fell in love at first sight at the humane society in September. But the German shepherd puppy she was smitten with was spoken for; someone recently had placed him on hold.

Asked whether she wanted to put him on a second hold, Leonard initially figured it was pointless. Who could possibly change their mind about this cutie pie? Still ...

"I thought, 'OK, if the first people don't take him, it's a sign,'" Leonard explained. "They didn't come for him, and then I got the phone call. It was kind of spur of the moment, but I think it's one of the best decisions I've ever made."

Leonard named her new dog Gus, and she couldn't be happier with him. But how she had come to be in Boulder and playing for the Buffs was because of another kind of decision -- one she put a great deal of thought into.

"The big thing for me was, I wanted to go someplace where I could change things," said Leonard, who grew up first in Chicago and then Texas, where she went to high school. "To have a chance to maybe leave it better than I found it. And obviously, here you get to wake up and see the mountains every day, too."

The recruiting pitches that sold Leonard and most of her teammates on Colorado were delivered by former coach Linda Lappe, a former Buff herself. But Lappe, who played at Colorado from 1999 to 2003, was fired last year after six seasons with a 105-92 record. That was preceded by Kathy McConnell-Miller's 65-88 mark in five seasons. During that 11-year stretch, Colorado made just one NCAA tournament appearance, in 2013.

Simply put, the Buffs have not been able to recapture the same success they had under Ceal Barry, who won 427 games and went to the NCAA tournament 12 times -- making three Elite Eight appearances -- in 22 seasons, starting in 1983. Barry retired from coaching and moved into administration in 2005, and she's now a senior associate athletic director at Colorado.

"There's a picture upstairs of [Coors Events Center] sold out when Ceal Barry was coach," Leonard said after a recent game. "I know her pretty well; we've had talks. She's a great mentor. I think we're just trying to bring it back to that level."

Or at least start down that road. JR Payne is in her first season as the Buffs' coach. "She's the kind of person I would run through a brick wall for any day of the week," Leonard said.

Payne no doubt appreciates the sentiment, but she certainly doesn't want Leonard crashing into anything that hard. The 5-foot-8 sophomore is the Buffs' leading scorer at 18.6 points per game, and she also averages a team-high 33 minutes per game.

"She's really working to be what we ask her to be: a scoring threat," Payne said. "It is always interesting when you didn't recruit the team you're going to coach, and you have to work to connect with them on a level that's not just basketball. We've worked pretty hard on that."

"We" includes Payne's husband, Toriano Towns, who is an assistant coach for the Buffs. Payne and Towns met when both were student-athletes at Saint Mary's (California) in the 1990s. They now have three children -- ages 8, 5 and 1 -- and came to Colorado from Santa Clara. Along with her two years with the Broncos, Payne also previously was a head coach at Southern Utah.

Payne is well-aware of Colorado's history, but also knows that it's imperative for the Buffs to look forward and not measure themselves against the past.

"It's far removed from what any of these players know," Payne said. "They see the trophies, but that's history to them. They're just trying to get better every day."

That's the most realistic way to approach it. Colorado is no longer in the Big Eight/Big 12, where Barry spent her coaching career. The Buffs joined the Pac-12 before the 2011-12 season, along with Utah. Now the Pac-12 has five teams -- Washington, Stanford, Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State -- ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and might be as strong as it has ever been in women's basketball.

In November, Colorado entered the AP poll at No. 21. The Buffs got to 10-0 and climbed as high as No. 15 around mid-December. The whole time, though, Payne pragmatically knew that was an inaccurate gauge. A little more than a month later, the Buffs had lost five games in a row and eight of their past nine. They needed a pick-me-up.

They got that Wednesday with a 54-49 victory over Utah. Leonard had 24 points and nine rebounds, scoring the Buffs' last 11 points to seal the victory. Alexis Robinson, Colorado's No. 2 scorer this season, had 10 points. The Buffs are now 12-8 overall and 2-7 in the Pac-12.

Colorado fans might be frustrated with seeing a third coach in 12 years -- and that doesn't count the very brief period, right after Barry resigned, that Green Bay's Kevin Borseth took the job before deciding it wasn't the right fit for him and his family.

Thus far, it has been right for Payne, but she's just getting started. The Buffs will try for another victory against the Utes in a rematch Saturday in Salt Lake City. But they still have to face No. 7 Washington twice, plus they have rematches against the likes of No. 10 Stanford and No. 11 Oregon State. The Buffs must just keep trying to improve.

"It's been kind of like having another freshman year, starting over with a new staff," Leonard said. "The coaching change has broadened my horizons a second time. And if we can build some stepping stones for players in the future to come here under JR and have success, that would be pretty awesome."