Pac-12 preview: the University of Utah

This is the first in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

There is both good news and bad news for the Utah Utes this season.

The bad news is that top scorer, team leader and all Pac-12 team selection Michelle Plouffe graduated last spring. The good news is that second-leading point-getter Taryn Wicijowski is back from injury, as is Paige Crozon. Both join three other returning starters.

With ten players returning and five newcomers, fifth-year coach Anthony Levrets said Utah has depth this year.

“You never replace a good player like [Michelle Plouffe], but this program has had good players forever,” Levrets said. “The All-American list around here is a really long list. You don’t replace them, but the first thing is that I feel like we have good players in the program right now. We feel like we are pretty deep.”

Sophomore forward Emily Potter (10.5 points per game) is back, as is junior guard Danielle Rodriguez (7.8 points per game), and senior guard Cheyenne Wilson (6.9 points per game). Crozon, a sophomore, also returns to the starting line up.

Wicijowski and Crozon both sat out last season, with a torn ACL and lingering concussion symptoms, respectively. Wicijowski averaged 14.3 points per game in 2012-2013, which was just three behind Plouffe. Leverts said her return means a lot to Utah.

“We have a two-time All-Pac-12 and one-time all-Mountain West Conference player who sat out with injury who is back and is a very good player in Taryn Wicijowski,” he said. “Getting her back helps put scoring, rebounding and defense back into that spot so we’re replacing Plouffe with a two-time all-Pac-12 performer who sat out the year last year in that position.”

Other notable returnees are sophomore forward Malia Nawahine (5.5 points per game) and sophomore guard Devri Owens (3.2 points per game). Four of the newcomers are decorated freshmen: guard Gabrielle Bowie, forwards Jada Matthews and Tanaeya Boclair, and center Joeseta Fateusi. Also new to the Utes is junior guard Katie Kuklok – a transfer from Utah Valley University who averaged 16 points per game there last year. Levrets is excited about Wicijowski and Crozon’s return coinciding with the arrival of Kuklok.

“For the rest of the team, every year you just want every player to get better,” Leverts said. “We also have great additions to the program, both through freshmen recruiting, [Wicijowski] coming back from injury, [Crozon] coming back from injury and then the transfer Katie [Kuklok] coming to us.”

Replacing Plouffe won’t be easy for Utah. She averaged 18.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per game last season, carrying the team again and again.

But if Wicijowski, Crozon and Kuklok take the lead and the newcomers develop quickly, it might get the Utes over the hump, as they’ve struggled since moving from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12 in 2011-2012. After a rocky first year in the Pac they had a promising second year, but struggled last season and finished eleventh in the conference.

Levrets is optimistic about the impending season.

“We feel like we have a bunch more scoring in way more places than we’ve had in the past,” he said.

Utah has a challenging pre-conference schedule, as they are set to take on Creighton, Nebraska, BYU and Louisiana Tech. They tip off Pac-12 play on the road at Cal on Jan. 3.