Barring a major collapse in their final four regular-season games and at the Pac-12 tournament, the University of Utah’s No. 4-ranked women’s basketball team will host the first two rounds of the Women’s NCAA Tournament at the Huntsman Center.

That goal was set months ago, and the Utes are well on their way to seeing coach Lynne Roberts’ vision for the program in the 2022-23 season realized, and then some. Utah (22-2, 12-2) is having a dream season and has clearly established itself as one of the top teams in the country.

“We have said it in huddles and timeouts and before games and (when) going over scout. Just stay present, be present. We went to fourth in the country, and they didn’t really talk about it. … It is just ‘stay the course’ and I think they are being disciplined with that.” — Utah coach Lynne Roberts

Along with achieving their highest AP Top 25 ranking in program history, the Utes are sixth in the NET rankings. Roberts’ eighth team at the U. has no weaknesses.

But now the Utes want more. A No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Big Dance is certainly reachable, and the confident, but hardly arrogant, Utes know it.

“Our goal all along this year has been to give ourselves a chance to host the first two rounds, and we are in great position to do that,” Roberts said Wednesday as the Utes continued preparations to face No. 18 Arizona on Friday in Tucson. “We certainly can’t go (winless) down the stretch, but if we do what we can do, it is certainly a realistic possibility.”

As the wins have piled up and national recognition has increased, Roberts and star guard Kennady McQueen said the Utes have adopted the mantra of “let’s just go 1-and-0” to keep everybody from looking ahead.

“We have said it in huddles and timeouts and before games and (when) going over scout,” Roberts said. “Just stay present, be present. We went to fourth in the country, and they didn’t really talk about it. … It is just ‘stay the course’ and I think they are being disciplined with that.”

Said McQueen, a North Summit High product from tiny Henefer: “Our mentality right now is just go 1-and-0, so Friday when we go to Arizona, it is 1-and-0, and then Saturday we will start worrying about Arizona State on Sunday. … If we keep our mentality on going 1-and-0 the thought of hosting tournament games and what seed we are and all that will take care of itself.”

Friday’s rematch at Arizona — the Utes edged the then-No. 14 Wildcats 80-79 in SLC on Jan. 15 — is huge in that regard. Aside from the Feb. 25 season-ender at home against No. 3 Stanford (24-3), Friday’s game is arguably the most important of the remaining contests in terms of getting a No. 1 seed in March Madness.

Roberts has heard that 15,545-seat McKale Center is sold out, after 9,868 fans watched UofA fall 84-60 to Stanford last week in Tucson. The coach called that kind of reception “awesome” and believes her team is ready for it.

“I am trying to get them to embrace that. Don’t be like, ‘oh no.’ Be like, ‘heck yeah,’” she said. “You have earned it. It means more. People care more. Don’t shy away from it, but embrace it.”

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Indeed, in the space of a year, the Utes have gone from hunter to hunted, and McQueen and company love it, she said.

“We have a target on our backs. We’ve felt it, but not in a pressure sense,” McQueen said. “Definitely now when we go play away games, some teams that usually don’t get a huge home crowd, the crowd comes out. When we are playing with that big target on our back, the home crowd always wants to see an upset.”

Arizona (19-6, 9-5) already has one of the toughest environments in the country for road teams, and is averaging 7,591 fans through 13 home games. Friday’s crowd could double that.

Roberts said the Utes first began noticing that they had gone from hunters to hunted at Washington State and Washington the first weekend of Pac-12 play.

“We have 100% felt that. Luckily we won (at WSU and UW). We played really poorly, and we were fortunate to get out of there with two wins,” she said. “That was the first time, and I was like, ‘Guys, look, this is the deal. You are ranked, and everyone is going to try to beat you, and that requires a level of intensity and focus.’ And we have gotten better with that every game. But yes, that has definitely been a new normal.”

No. 4 Utah women’s basketball on the air

No. 4 Utah (22-2, 12-2)
at No. 18 Arizona (19-6, 9-5)
Friday, 7 p.m. MST
At McKale Center
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700

Looking ahead a bit, the Utes kind of picked a bad year to be great. Rather than the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament hosting the regional finals, the regional rounds will move to a two-host format in March, with eight teams competing in Greenville, South Carolina and eight in Seattle, Washington.

“At this point, I don’t care (if Utah goes to Seattle or South Carolina) because it means we are in the Sweet 16, and I am fired up,” Roberts said.

But first things first. Arizona, and its raucous crowd, awaits on Friday.

“We’re ready,” McQueen said. “We are playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think our success shows that. We worked hard all summer leading up to this moment.”

To go 1-and-0, and then get ready for the next one.

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts reacts from the sideline during a game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News