Throughout most of the winter, the University of Colorado women’s basketball team was the most dominant hoops squad in the state—quite the feat considering the Denver Nuggets are defending NBA champions. At one point in late January, the Buffaloes were ranked number three in the country, having compiled a 16-2 record with big-time wins against top 10 opponents like Stanford, University of Southern California, and reigning champion Louisiana State University.

There was even talk that the group could be the first team in school history to make a Final Four. “I’ve told them, ‘Why not raise a different banner that we don’t have in the rafters?’ We don’t have that Final Four banner,” assistant coach Shelley Sheetz, who was on the 1994–’95 Buffs squad that made it to the Elite Eight, told the Denver Post in December. “This team has the pieces of the puzzle to take the program to the next level.”

The run of dominance, however, hit a snag beginning in mid-February. The Buffs lost six of eight games to finish out the season, dropping the team to number 18 in the final rankings before the NCAA tournament begins this week.

Despite the run of poor form, the CU women still qualified for the Big Dance as a five-seed. (They square off against 12-seed Drake in the opening round on Friday at 5 p.m.) The team’s roster is full of the gritty veterans who helped them knock off some of the tournament’s top seeds early in the season, and the group is still likely the Centennial State’s best shot at making a magical Final Four run. (Colorado State’s men’s team nosed into the competition with a play-in win over University of Virginia on Tuesday; Colorado’s men’s squad will compete in their own play-in game tonight versus Boise State University.)

If you’re late to the party on the CU women’s team, we’ve got you covered with a primer on what you need to know to root on the squad through the rest of March—and hopefully beyond.

Head Coach JR Payne’s Slow Build

The year before JR Payne took over as head coach of the CU women’s basketball team in 2016, the Buffs went 7-23. But the Payne-led turnaround didn’t happen overnight. During her first eight years in charge, the team has seen incremental improvements in its record, eventually leading to NCAA tournament appearances the past two years, including a spot in the Sweet Sixteen last season. Payne, who has called her coaching philosophy “blue collar,” praised the CU athletic department’s patience as she built a contender.

The bedrock of the current team is also a group of players that didn’t garner significant attention as high school recruits. “The identity and core of our team is under-recruited, chip-on-our-shoulder, super tough, prove everyone wrong,” Payne said. “For us, the culture of who you are is much more important than what you are.”

A Veteran Core

There isn’t one definitive star on this Buffs team. Sure, there’s Jaylyn Sherrod, the team’s fifth-year point guard who is a defensive menace and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors, and Aaronette Vonleh, a junior center who leads the team in scoring and blocked shots. But Payne’s squad features nine players averaging double-digit minutes, all of whom are juniors or older. That means the team has a balanced approach, with a winning formula likely to come from a different mixture of those nine veterans every game.

Frida Formann’s Sharp Shooting

Frida Formann, a senior guard from Denmark, is currently tied for the all-time lead in three-pointers made for the Buffs. If she sinks one more long-range bucket in the NCAA tournament, she’ll officially pass Bianca Smith (257 treys from 2006-’10) and hold the record by herself. And in order for the Buffs to make a deep run, they’ll likely need Formann to get hot from beyond the arc. In some of the team’s most impressive wins, the Danish markswoman showed out, including draining seven threes in the team’s massive season-opening win against LSU.

The Colorado bench reacts to a basket against Oregon State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 women's tournament Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Las Vegas.
The University of Colorado basketball team during the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 women’s tournament on March 2, 2023, in Las Vegas. Photo by AP Photo/David Becker

The Hometown Kid

Kindyll Wetta, who grew up in Castle Rock and went to Valor Christian High School, is the lone local product for the Buffs. She is also one of the team’s best defensive players. “Every coach wants a player who loves defense the way Kindyll Wetta does,” Payne said. Wetta’s road to get to this point was more difficult than most. She tore her ACL twice in high school, once during her freshman year and once as a sophomore, but fought through long recoveries to become the Colorado 5A Player of the Year her senior year at Valor. Now, the junior is second on the Buffs in steals with 1.7 thefts a game and is set to be one of the team’s senior leaders next year.

The Importance of Seeding

It doesn’t take a basketball genius to realize that it’s better to be the four seed than the five seed. But the difference between those designations is especially important in the women’s NCAA tournament because the top 16 teams overall, which include every team seeded one through four in each region, get to host the first two rounds at their home venues. The Buffs narrowly missed out on such a treat, netting a five seed. As a result, they will play their first two rounds in Manhattan, Kansas, at Kansas State University—500 miles east of Boulder.

What could have been? Well, the Buffs have only lost three games at home all season. The program also set record attendance numbers, including when 11,338 fans, the most ever for a CU women’s basketball game, showed up to watch them take on UCLA in January. Still, it seems like tickets for the Drake match at K-State are sold out, so maybe Buffs Nation is hitting the road.

The Pac-12’s Last Dance

There has been no shortage of interesting storylines in women’s college basketball this season (Caitlin Clark, anyone?), but an under-the-radar subplot has been the dominance of the Pac-12 conference in its final season. Along with the Buffs, the conference features five other top 25 teams, including three (UCLA, USC, and Stanford) ranked in the top 10. That means CU is battle tested, having played some of the best teams in the country multiple times. Under Payne, the team has become one of the conference’s more consistent teams and is likely to see a slight step down in overall competition when they move to the Big 12 next year.

Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.