Big games await No. 17 Buffaloes

There are definitive, objective measures that tell Colorado this is a big weekend. Records and rankings, just to name a couple.

But Buffaloes coach Linda Lappe is trying her best to minimize the big.

"Every weekend is important," Lappe said. "I'm sure this weekend is more important than the last or more important than playing the Washington schools the next weekend. We need to be ready and prepared every weekend. It's two games."

Not to belabor the point, but two big games.

No. 17 Colorado (11-2, 1-1) has the opportunity to more clearly define itself as a national power when the Buffaloes host No. 19 Cal (10-3, 2-0) on Friday and fourth-ranked Stanford (13-1, 2-0) on Sunday. It's Colorado's only regular-season games against the Bay Area teams thanks to the conference's unbalanced schedule.

"We need to be able to utilize an experience like this to help our kids grow and be in a position that they haven't been in yet," Lappe said. "The more experiences they have, the better they are able to handle anything."

A home weekend against a tough two-game set in the Pac-12 is a good measurement for a team with big ambitions. But it's getting late for measuring sticks.

Lappe feels like her team had its barometer game already, a 69-62 loss at Louisville on Dec. 21.

"We know where we are. We don't have to measure ourselves against anybody," she said. "We have a good idea who we are."

Right now, the Buffaloes are establishing their identity on the defensive end. The top defensive team in the Pac-12, the Buffaloes lead the league in scoring defense (59.2 points a game), 3-point percentage defense (.244) and rebounding margin (9.2) and rank second behind Stanford in shooting percentage defense (.347).

Offensively, Colorado is balanced, with four players averaging double figures, led by reigning conference freshman of the year Arielle Roberson, who is also setting the rebounding pace at 8.8 per game.

The Buffaloes came together quickly this season, moving forward following the graduation of top scorer Chucky Jeffery. A late-summer trip to Italy solidified team chemistry.

"What I was surprised about was that [starting guard] Brittany [Wilson] was out with an injury for a few weeks and we had different people doing different things," Lappe said. "Lexy [Kresl] was playing the point, and Jasmine Sborov, who is a 3, was playing the point. That gave those two players a lot of confidence early. That experience makes your wings better. I think it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise."

After a 10-1 run through the nonconference schedule -- the only loss to the Cardinals -- Colorado opened conference play with a 55-45 loss at Southern California and a 61-59 win against UCLA, the Buffaloes' first win over the Bruins since joining the Pac-12 three years ago.

"It was important for us to get that win against UCLA," junior forward Jen Reese said. "On the road, we know it's a business trip, and I feel like we bounced right back. We really needed that."

With the Bears and the Cardinal coming in, Reese doesn't feel like her team has anything to prove, even if winning a game or two could cement their status among the top teams in the nation.

"We play our game. We do what we have to do," Reese said. "These are going to be great games for us. But we understand we have a target on our backs."

That is perhaps the thing that has changed the most for Colorado, the target part.

Colorado has been ranked all season, opening 2013-14 ranked in both national polls for the first time since 2003.

Yet Lappe likes it better when her team has the edge of an underdog.

"Everyone thinks it's harder climbing from the bottom, but I think it can be harder at the top because it's a tough job to stay there," she said. "For us, I really think you have to keep that chip on your shoulder. We have to make sure that we never take what other people say or think about us to heart. I think that's bad. All the good that's talked about you, that's great, but we cannot buy too much into that. In the same way, when you lose, you can't buy too much into that."

Lappe wants her team to have tunnel vision, even when the spotlight turns the Buffaloes' way.

"You will stop working if you don't have something to prove," she said. "We have something to prove. We have to prove that we can stay consistent and focused on the bigger picture. It's not about one game or two games."

No matter how big.