There have been past years, perhaps even last year, when the University of Utah women’s basketball team needed a long run or a championship in the conference tournament to punch its dance ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think we are a lock for a No. 1, no. I think we are going to have to win a couple games, to make that a reality. But I don’t know. Who knows? I try not to (think about it). We haven’t really been talking about that.” — Utes coach Lynne Roberts

Obviously, this isn’t one of those years.

Ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press Top 25 media poll, and having shared the Pac-12 regular-season title with perennial power Stanford, Utah is not only in the Big Dance, but quite likely on track to earn a No. 1 seed — at worst a No. 2 seed — when the selections are announced a week from Sunday.

The Utes (25-3) have been so good that they are a lock to host first- and second-round games of March Madness at the Huntsman Center.

But are they a lock for a No. 1 seed, regardless of what happens this week at Michelob Ultra Arena, formerly the Mandalay Events Center, in Las Vegas? Second-seeded Utah meets the winner of Wednesday night’s first-round game between Cal and Washington State at 7 p.m. MST Thursday night in a quarterfinal game.

“I don’t think we are a lock for a No. 1, no,” Utes coach Lynne Roberts said. “I think we are going to have to win a couple games, to make that a reality. But I don’t know. Who knows? I try not to (think about it). We haven’t really been talking about that.”

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A case could be made that the surprising Utes — they were picked to finish fifth in the league last November — have more to lose than to gain this week, but Roberts and her team said they are genuinely grateful to be playing this week and validate what they did in the regular season.

Utah was the fourth No. 1 seed in the latest and last 16-team bracket reveal last week, and that was before the Utes downed the Cardinal 84-78 in Salt Lake City to get revenge for a 74-62 loss at Stanford on Jan. 20.

Utah’s only other losses were at Arizona and at Colorado, which is the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament and would face the Utes in the semifinals Friday if the seeding holds. The championship game is Sunday at 3 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN2.

“Of course, it would be incredible (to get a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance), it would be awesome for a whole myriad of reasons, and a competitive advantage and all that,” Roberts said. “But we haven’t gotten too far ahead of ourselves and we need to just focus on beating whoever we play tomorrow, one at a time.”

The Utes have used that “go 1-0” mantra all season, with historic success. They aren’t about to get into conjecture or anything of the sort. And they certainly aren’t going to complain about how conference tournaments actually hurt high-seeded teams more than they help.

Remember how former Utes men’s coach Rick Majerus hated these things? Roberts is just the opposite.

Utes on the air


Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal


No. 3 Utah (25-3)
vs. California/Washington State
Thursday, 7 p.m. MST
At Michelob Ultra Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700

“If I start worrying about seeding, then I am going to lose focus on who we play (next),” she said. “So I want to take it as it comes, and whatever we ended up seeded, I anticipate we will have earned. 

“If we are a No. 1 seed, we will have earned it. If we are a 2, we will have earned it. That is just how it is.”

The Utes arrived in Las Vegas on Tuesday and practiced at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday morning. Having defeated Wazzu 71-66 on Dec. 30 in Pullman and 73-59 on Feb. 12 in SLC, they are familiar with the Cougars.

Having crushed Cal 87-62 in Berkeley on Jan. 22 and 101-76 at the Huntsman Center last Thursday, they know even more about the Bears.

“We are prepared either way,” Roberts said.

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They are also prepared to handle the pressure of a conference tournament in Las Vegas. Every main contributor on this team — with the exception of USC transfer Alissa Pili, the Pac-12 Player of the Year — was there last year when Utah mowed down Cal, Washington State and Oregon before falling 73-48 to Stanford in the championship game.

“We all have the same goal in the end, and that is to win games,” said honorable mention all-Pac-12 guard Kennady McQueen. “Like coach Rob said, none of us care about the individual stuff as much as we care about winning. And I think that is what helps us be super successful.”

Pili’s USC squad lost 73-60 to UCLA in a first-round game last year; she scored six points on 1 of 5 shooting in 19 minutes.

“I honestly could say the transition (to Utah) was really smooth,” Pili said Wednesday, when she was also named the league’s Player of the Year by media members who cover the Pac-12. “I didn’t really have any big problems with it. Everybody welcomed me with open arms. It was a great thing to experience.”

Roberts agreed that last year’s run will help in terms of experience and familiarity with the venue, which is a bit different than most gyms in the league because it is basically a basketball court placed in the middle of convention space.

“I told the team today that we want to make sure we are playing with the same level of intensity and desire to win. We are not just happy to be here. We are not just here going through the motions,” Roberts said. “There is an intensity. We want to back up what we did this past weekend. Last year’s success gives our team a little different (attitude). It just feels different.”

And it feels a lot better — even if there is a lot more to lose.

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts talks to her team during Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.
Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts talks to her team during 2022 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament final game against the Stanford at the Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas on Sunday, March 6, 2022. The Utes open 2023 Pac-12 tournament play Thursday night. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News