Respect is growing for University of Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts’ program.

Before the Pac-12 women’s basketball media day unfolded Tuesday, the league’s preseason polls were released and show that Utah has been picked by both the coaches and the media to finish fifth in the 2022-23 league race.

It is the highest the Utes have been picked in any poll since they joined the league. Also, Utah earned its first-ever first-place vote in the coaches’ poll, tallying 84 points. The Utes earned 226 points in the media poll from the 28 media voters who cover the league and participated in the polling.

Presumably, Utah’s first-place vote came from Stanford, because coaches are not allowed to vote for their own teams. The Cardinal got the other 11 first-place votes in the coaches poll and all 28 in the media poll. 

Oregon, Arizona and UCLA are also picked to finish higher than the Utes, who made it to the Pac-12 championship game last spring in Las Vegas before falling to Stanford in the championship game.

Expectations are high for the Utes because eight players are back from the squad that won an NCAA Tournament game last spring in Austin, Texas, defeating Arkansas. Among the eight are three players who made the Preseason All-Conference Team, which was announced Monday.

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Sophomores Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson were first-team honorees, while sophomore Kennady McQueen earned honorable mention honors.

Joining those eight are five newcomers, led by USC transfer Alissa Pili.

Isabel Palmer, Ines Vieira, Dasia Young, Kelsey Rees and Peyton McFarland also return for the Utes; other newcomers are Nene Sow, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, and freshmen Lani White, Naya Ojukwu and Teya Sidberry, a product of Salt Lake City’s Judge Memorial High.

Kneepkens, from Duluth, Minnesota, was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2021-22. She also earned first-team Pac-12 honors and All-Freshman Team honors. She was one of two Utes in program history to earn Pac-12 All-Tournament honors in Las Vegas.

Johnson, from Medina, Minnesota, also earned All-Freshman and Pac-12 All-Tournament honors last season.

McQueen, from Henefer and a product of North Summit High, was a Pac-12 honorable mention honoree last season and was named to the Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll.

Last season, Roberts led the Utes to 21 wins and the Utes made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Utah led the Pac-12 in scoring with a 75.9 average per game, 17th in the country. 

The voting was the same in both polls for teams 4-12. Oregon State is picked sixth, a spot behind the Utes.

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The Pac-12 leads all conferences in Final Four appearances (7), NCAA Tournament wins (76), NCAA Tournament winning percentage (.685), regular-season, nonconference winning percentage (.793) and WBCA All-Americans (15) in the last seven years.

Stanford’s Haley Jones was the Pac-12’s Player of the Year in 2021-22, while the Cardinal’s Cameron Brink was Defensive Player of the Year.

Washington State was picked seventh, followed by Colorado, USC, Washington, California and Arizona State.

Utah opens the season Oct. 27 by hosting Northwest Nazarene in the fifth-annual Future-Scholars game. Tipoff is at 11 a.m. in the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Utah Utes women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts yells as the Utes play Stanford in the 2022 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament final game at the Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday, March 6, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News