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Pac-12 preview: the University of Utah

This is the seventh in a series previewing the Pac-12 teams

This is year three for Utah in the Pac-12, and year four for coach Anthony Levrets. Going from the Mountain West Conference, where they were always contenders, to the larger up-and-coming conference has been a rough transition for the Utes.

They have posted winning records three of the last four years, but have not done the same in conference play since entering the Pac-12. Nor have they been to the NCAA Tournament, which they had done fairly regularly.

Injuries haven’t helped, and that will hold true once again this year, with the loss of second-leading scorer Taryn Wicijowski (14.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg). The redshirt senior forward tore her ACL in practice three weeks ago. This puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of senior forward Michelle Plouffe (17.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg), because last year’s third and fourth point-getters are gone. The last starter, sophomore guard Danielle Rodriguez (2.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg) returns, but the rest of the Utes will need to step way up.

Other returnees include junior guard Cheyenne Wilson and sophomore guard Paige Crozon (each 4 ppg); junior guard Ciera Dunbar (1.6 ppg); redshirt freshman forward Nakia Arquette (1.3 ppg); sophomore guard Awa Kalmstrom (.9 ppg); and senior forward Ariel Reynolds (.8 ppg).

Utah has four freshmen and one sophomore transfer,and unsurprisingly, Levrets will be counting on them.

“This is a really young team,” he said. “I expect all four of our freshmen to play significantly. They are going to have growing pains, and we have to be patient with them and know that we’ll be playing our best basketball at the end of the season. Hopefully we’re good enough early on to win a few games as we go, but I really think the ceiling for this team is incredibly high.”

Forward Malia Nawahine is one of the two stars of the freshman class, as the highly-decorated 2012-2013 Gatorade Utah Girls Basketball Player of the year. Her sister, sophomore Valerie Nawahine, transferred to Utah from BYU. The other freshman who could have an immediate impact for the Utes is forward Emily Potter, who played for the Canada Junior Women’s National Team at the FIBA U19 World Championships for Women this past summer.

Guard Devri Owens hails from Texas, where she was awarded for her offensive dominance. Forward Wendy Anae comes from San Diego, Calif.

Last season marked an improvement for Utah, as they made it to the WNIT finals. But despite the youth of the squad, Levrets said at Pac-12 media day this week that the goal is to make the NCAA Tournament. The reason is Plouffe, who will likely surpass the 2,000 career point and 1,000 career rebound marks this year. Levrets characterized Plouffe as an exceptionally-special player.

Among the Utes’ pre-conference opponents are Nebraska, UNLV, Butler, Marquette and BYU. They open Pac-12 play Jan. 3 at UCLA.

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