It’s far from a hot take to declare that expectations for the Utah women’s basketball team are as high as they have ever been.

The Utes are ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll — the highest preseason ranking in school history — and have the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year returning in Alissa Pili.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for Lynne Roberts’ program that returns five starters back from a team that reached the Sweet Sixteen and won a share of the Pac-12 regular-season championship last season.

“That’s our goal — to make it farther in the (NCAA) tournament, Elite Eight or further. We know it’s going to be hard and challenging, but that’s what this group is focused on.” — Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts

There’s also a visual reminder of what the team is aspiring to accomplish this season: in the team’s practice facility, there’s an empty circle on an Elite Eight banner.

“That’s our goal — to make it farther in the (NCAA) tournament, Elite Eight or further. We know it’s going to be hard and challenging, but that’s what this group is focused on,” Roberts said on the opening day of the team’s preseason training camp.

It’s not the first time Roberts has used a visual statement of what the Utes’ goal is — the empty circle has previously been on a Sweet Sixteen banner and an NCAA Tournament banner, respectively, the previous two offseasons.

Both times, her team accomplished making those marks.

“It’s just up there, they know, and it’s the daily reminder of the ultimate goal, but I don’t think you talk about the ultimate goals every day,” Roberts said. “They’re out there, we’ve acknowledged it, we accept that. Like yes, we want that. When you’re tired or whatever, it’s a motivator.”

Lynne Roberts’ peers are fans of her work at Utah. What other Pac-12 coaches said of her success
Preseason giving Utah women’s basketball a chance to learn more about its younger players

Pili and all-conference guard Gianna Kneepkens agreed that while the message is received, the banner isn’t meant to serve as a limitation to what Utah can accomplish.

“It’s there for the visual, just to see that every day when we come in to practice. Honestly, with this group, we don’t try to put a ceiling on what we can do and what we can accomplish,” Pili said. “We’re striving to go and take it all the way.” 

Added Kneepkens, while emphasizing right now is about having the mindset to keep grinding and not take plays off: “It’s up there but we know we can’t focus on that now ... that’s a lot of months away.”

High expectations aren’t just coming internally this season for the Utes. There are plenty of external voices expecting big things for Utah this year.

Both ESPN and The Athletic have Utah No. 5 in their preseason rankings, and the Utes were picked to win the Pac-12 conference in the league’s preseason media and coaches polls.

This comes after Utah was agonizingly close to knocking off eventual national champion LSU last season in a Sweet Sixteen matchup.  

“No team in the NCAA tournament played LSU as tightly as the Utes, who were two free throws and a possession away from knocking the Tigers out in the Sweet 16,” Creme wrote. “With all five starters back for the defending Pac-12 co-champions, they will have another legitimate opportunity to reach the Final Four.” 

How Utah handles itself will be a big part of whether the Utes can live up to these high early-season projections.

“The Utes came into last season flying under the radar. ... But with a regular-season Pac-12 title, a run to the Sweet 16 last year, and the return of its starting five this season, there’s no doubt: Utah has arrived,” The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings and Sabreena Merchant wrote. 

“So, what do they do now that they’re here? (And, especially now that everyone knows it.) Handling that pressure will be one of the biggest storylines to watch with this motivated group that played eventual champs LSU the best of any tournament opponent.”

For the Utes, the focus isn’t on the big picture — Pili said it’s on preparing day to day.

“Being intentional in practice is a big thing for us,” she said.

The roster

OK, get a pen and paper ready — there’s a lot to digest about just how experienced this Utah team will be. The program returns nine players from last year’s historic season, when Utah didn’t have any seniors. The Utes also have 90.3% of their scoring production returning.

Any discussions surrounding Utah start with the power forward Pili, who shined in her first season in Salt Lake City after transferring from USC.

What is it like to defend Alissa Pili?

Her 20.7 points-per-game average led the Pac-12, and she also averaged 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 59% from the field.

“It’s going to be harder for her this year, but she’s up for the challenge,” Roberts said.

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) passes the ball against Colorado Buffaloes center Quay Miller (11) and forward Brianna McLeod (25) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.
Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) passes the ball against Colorado Buffaloes center Quay Miller (11) and forward Brianna McLeod (25) at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The team’s second-leading scorer is Kneepkens, who has shined in her first two seasons in Salt Lake City.

Last year, Kneepkens led a high-scoring Utah team that finished fourth nationally in scoring (82.8 ppg) with 71 made 3-pointers. She averaged 15.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 50% from the floor.

Utah also returns its other three starters — Jenna Johnson, Kennedy McQueen and Isabel Palmer.

The 6-foot-2 forward Johnson is a two-year starter heading into her junior season. Last year, she earned Pac-12 all-conference honorable mention honors while averaging 11.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.

The 5-10 guard McQueen has started 61 games over the past two seasons and was second on the team last year with 59 made 3-pointers while averaging 9.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. She, too, earned all-league honorable mention honors last season.

Then there’s the 5-9 guard Palmer, who got the first 18 starts of her career last season and averaged 7.9 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.59 assists per game.

It may be strange to think about, considering the extensive experience on the roster, but only Pili and Palmer are seniors among those returning starters — the other three are all juniors.

Inês Vieira and Dasia Young also bring plenty of experience in key moments and can fill in the starting lineup as needed — Vieira, for example, started 14 games last season.

Center Néné Sow, who stands 6-8, redshirted last year and will play her first season for Utah after transferring, while now-sophomore Lani White stepped up in limited minutes as a freshman.

“We’re not a one- or two-headed monster. Alissa and Gianna are our two leading scorers, but we have a number of kids who can score 25 points on a given night, and I think that’s what makes us great,” Roberts said.

Utah women’s basketball is already stacked but begins camp with key additions

There are a few new faces, too: guard Matyson Wilke is the most high-profile transfer after starting 29 games as a freshman at Wisconsin last season, while forward Samantha Crispe joined the team from Boston U. and forward Alyssa Blanck comes to Salt Lake City from BYU. 

“We return all of our starters and it’s competitive. But (Wilke’s) good enough to start in this conference. What a luxury for us,” Roberts said of the Badger transfer, who’s dealt with some lingering injury issues in the preseason.

The Utes have two freshmen as well in small forward Reese Ross, who put up strong numbers in Utah’s two exhibition games, and forward Daniela Falcon Fernandez.

“It’s great to have our core group back, but I think it helps because we, as players, can learn to teach new girls that don’t know (the system). Sometimes it’s better just coming from your teammates. It’s easy to learn that way,” Kneepkens said.

The Utes bench erupts after a basket and foul is called for Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) as the University of Utah’s 10th-ranked women’s basketball team and the 14th-ranked Arizona Wildcats play in a thriller at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. Utah won 80-79. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The schedule

The Utes’ nonconference slate — 12 games in total, starting with a 4 p.m. MST tipoff Monday against Mississippi Valley State at the Huntsman Center — will take Utah to several different parts of the country.

There are six home games, headlined by a Dec. 2 matchup against BYU and a pre-Christmas tilt with Weber State (Dec. 21) in the final game before conference play begins.

Utah also will play two games in the Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 18-19), a nice homecoming for Anchorage native Pili, against Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia (Dec. 7) and visit Cedar City to play last year’s Big Sky champions, Southern Utah (Dec. 16).

The two most anticipated nonconference matchups, though, come against a pair of ranked opponents that will not only be NCAA resume builders for Roberts’ squad but provide a litmus test for how they stack up against other national contenders.

The first — at No. 19 Baylor on Nov. 14 — comes just three games into the regular season. The other — a neutral-site matchup against No. 6 South Carolina on Dec. 10 — will pit Roberts against legendary coach Dawn Staley.

Roberts’ hope is that her team can be at its best defensively by the conclusion of nonleague play, to help set the Utes up for what should be another grueling conference season.

“What I am hoping to get from this is to be tested where we can be tested,” Roberts said of the team’s nonconference schedule, “but also I think we need to stay healthy, figure out rotations in those other games.”

The Pac-12 schedule will provide its own set of challenges.

Utah will play its first three league games on the road — including an opener at Colorado (Dec. 30), which made the Sweet Sixteen last season, and a road trip to Arizona (Jan. 7), another NCAA Tournament team, to cap the trip.

It’s an odd schedule with Utah playing four straight at home, followed by four straight on the road right after, and as a result, only four of the Utes’ first 11 Pac-12 games will be at home.

Utah and Stanford shared the league regular-season title last year, but will only play once this season. The Utes will host the Cardinal on Jan. 12 in Utah’s league home opener.

The Utes will also play five of their final seven regular-season games at home, with a two-game road trip to UCLA (Feb. 22) and USC (Feb. 25) in the middle.

Even though Utah is projected as the league favorite in the Pac-12 preseason polls, Roberts doesn’t concern herself with any targets on the Utes’ back.

“I don’t think we are (the hunters). I still think what makes us great is that we still have so much to prove. I think that’s what our team is about. We’re very kind of blue collar. We’re great because of the sum of the parts. That’s not going to change,” she told onlookers at Pac-12 basketball media day last month.

“Yes, we’ll have a bigger target on our back, but as we say, too, pressure is a privilege. We want it. But I still feel like we’re hunting.”

The Utah team celebrates a win and become co-champions after an NCAA college basketball game against Stanford Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Salt Lake City. | Rob Gray, Associated Press

Final verdict

With such a heavy dose of returning talent — along with a set of newcomers that look like they could contribute when called upon — the expectations should only continue to soar once the season actually begins.

In its latest bracketology, ESPN projects that the Pac-12 will send nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, more than any other conference. That includes Utah as a No. 2 seed and UCLA as a No. 1 seed.

Preseason predictions, though, mean little come March, when the regular season has wrapped and the postseason looms.

View Comments

How last year ended helps motivate this Utah squad to take the next step. 

“We haven’t achieved our goals, and they’re not content,” Roberts said. “They have been almost concerningly ticked off since that loss to LSU. It has really galvanized their motivation. If anything, I have to pull them back a bit, let’s pace ourselves.” 

With that mix of returning stars, experienced veterans and promising youngsters, Roberts sees a team that is meshing well heading into the season.

“Players now know, this is my role — and we’ve had those conversations — this is my job and that allows you to play a little more confidently when you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing,” she said. “I feel like we’re ready to start learning from playing, not just practicing.”

Universoty of Utah players huddle with women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts inside the team’s practice facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. | Hunter Dyke/Utah Athletics
Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.