Coach JR Payne has No. 18 Colorado on track and undefeated

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) Home-cooked meals at her house, featuring all the lasagna the players could eat and a game of hide-and-seek with her kids. A more lighthearted atmosphere at practice, complete with friendly football contests.

In no time, first-year Colorado basketball coach JR Payne has changed the course and culture of the 18th-ranked Buffaloes. At 8-0, they've already surpassed their win total (seven) from a season ago.

This amount of success so early is somewhat of a surprise. Payne figured it might take a little bit more time to install her system. But her players instantly bought in and now they're off and rolling.

''We have a great group of girls here, who just play their hearts out,'' said Payne, whose team hosts rival Colorado State on Thursday night. ''But I definitely did not expect to start this way.''

A little bonding went a long way. The first thing Payne did after being hired from Santa Clara last March was chat with each player. Just a get-to-know-you session. What's your family like? Hopes and aspirations? That sort of thing.

''We really worked to build relationships with the kids, because we didn't recruit any of them,'' said Payne, who was 23-9 in her final season at Santa Clara. ''We didn't know any of them.''

But she could see their work ethic. Hard to miss, actually.

Guards Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson were always on the floor whenever she walked past the gym.

Turns out, those two had adopted what they termed their ''7-to-9 rule.'' They showed up each day from 7 to 9 a.m. and again from 7 to 9 p.m. to get in some extra shooting. The workouts actually started before Payne was brought on board and they would sometimes be joined by other players. Simply doing their part to bounce back from a 7-23 season a year ago that led to the exit of coach Linda Lappe.

''That (extra work) was for us, our team, because we were sick of losing,'' Leonard said.

Payne didn't ask about last season. It didn't matter. This was a new beginning as the Buffaloes try to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012-13.

''We're a very positive staff and always upbeat, encouraging,'' Payne said. ''We have a lot of fun with our team.''

Like the other day, when the Colorado football team was playing Washington in the Pac-12 Championship game. The basketball team decided to play a little football. Later, they had dinner at their coach's house as they took in the game. They even played with her three kids.

And last weekend, Leonard & Co. took two of Payne's children to see the movie, ''Moana.''

''Everything with us is about family,'' said Leonard, a sophomore from Southlake, Texas. ''Constantly hearing that day in and day out, it builds an even stronger team and unity.''

The Buffaloes have taken to heart the three pillars of Payne's program - be the toughest team on the floor, be the hardest-working squad and play with discipline. They've won by an average of 25.8 points and knocked off No. 15 Kentucky 79-69 on Nov. 19.

''We give everyone a role on the team that plays to their strength,'' said Payne, whose real name is Ali-Marie but was nicknamed JR as a kid by her father after getting into fights with her brother. It's an ode to the character J.R. Ewing in the show ''Dallas.''

Payne's system is a hybrid of what she ran at Santa Clara. They push the pace at times and they're aggressive on defense. Also making the Buffaloes difficult is that they have seven players averaging at least five points, with Leonard leading the way at a 16.3.

''No one has to go for 30 for us to be successful,'' Payne said. ''All these different players, on any given night, have the ability to put the ball in the basket. That's such a great thing for a first-year coach.''

So is this: A little chip on the shoulder of the players. Just to show everyone this program is on the rise again.

''Expect the unexpected,'' Leonard said. ''Because every day we go into practice and work on something new to try and get better. We'll probably surprise a few people along the way.''

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