Pac-12 preview: the University of Utah

This is the twelfth of a 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

In the movies, when a kid gets to a new school and can keep up with or beat the students there, that new kid catches heat. Hopefully the Pac-12 will be hospitable enough to the Utah Utes, because the conference newcomers are poised to make an immediate impact.

Last season the Utes finished with an 18-17 overall record and were 7-9 in Mountain West Conference play, which was good for a fourth-place tie. After winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament, they went to the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round to eventual National Champion runners up Notre Dame. In the 2009-2010 season, Utah played in the WNIT. They have made 17 NCAA Tournament appearances since women’s basketball began in 1974-1975.

Utah returns four starters this season, including their top three scorers: redshirt junior guard Iwalani Rodrigues (14.9 ppg), sophomore forward Michelle Plouffe (13.7 ppg) and senior guard Janita Badon (12.6 ppg). Forward Taryn Wicijowski is also back after sitting out last season with an ACL tear. The redshirt sophomore was the MWC Freshman of the Year in 2009-2010, with 14.8 ppg and 6.3 rpg. She had been selected pre-season all-MWC team last year before her injury.

Other significant returnees include junior guard Rachel Messer, junior forward Diana Rolniak and sophomore guard Brittany Knighton. The Utes lost only two last year – both bench players.

Newcomers include 6-foot-4 forward Rachel Morris, who set the Nevada state record in her senior season last year for career blocked shots, with 597; and Cheyenne Wilson, a 5-foot-11 guard from Seattle who sat out several games last year due to injury, but who was the 3A state player of the year as a junior, averaging 21.5 ppg.

Coach Anthony Levrets is modest in his public expectations of the team. He commented last week, when Utah was chosen to finish sixth in the Pac-12, that “this is a brand new experience for us. Our goal is to be playing our very best basketball at the end of the season, so by the end we will be ready to compete against whoever we face. Right now, we are doing our best to get ready for our first game against Southern Utah.”

With several former Pac-10 teams in transition with new coaches and other program changes, Utah may be coming in at just the right time to be contenders. Their roster is solid and experienced with a senior, four juniors and five sophomores. Levrets and his coaching staff have plenty of experience between them, as well. Finally, the staff and team are excited to be in the Pac-12.

University of Utah crash course: the school is in Salt Lake City, and the Utes are an Indian tribe with a reservation located about 150 miles east of town. School colors are crimson and white, and the mascot is the red-tailed hawk.

The Utes begin play Nov. 13 at home, facing Southern Utah. Other pre-conference opponents include Michigan, Arkansas, BYU and Texas Southern. They open Pac-12 play Dec. 31 as they take on Colorado at home.