Ut-awe inspiring: Hot start has Utes at top of Pac-12

Sophomore forward Emily Potter puts up two for Utah. Photo by Steve Wilson/University of Utah Athletics.
Sophomore forward Emily Potter puts up two for Utah. Photo by Steve Wilson/University of Utah Athletics.

It’s been a rough three-year stretch for Utah Utes fans.

First, it was just missing the NCAA Tournament in 2013 after going 18-13 in the regular season. Then, it was a heartbreaking three-point loss in the WNIT championship game to Drexel.

What few expected was for the bottom to fall out entirely in the two seasons to follow, as injuries mounted and the Utes limped to a pair of sub-.400 records.

This past offseason, the program opted to make a change at the top, hiring long-time Pacific coach Lynne Roberts to replace Anthony Levrets.

And early returns indicate that rough stretch is now well in the past, as the Runnin’ Utes have sprinted out to their best start in nearly a decade (2007-08).

It hasn’t always been pretty — Six wins of five points or less — but a 12-4 record including a victory over then-No. 21 Cal has Utah in the thick of the Pac-12 race, if not at the front.

“I believe in these guys, I really do,” Roberts said in her weekly press conference on Jan. 12. “I did not come into this season and think ‘We want to go 8-3 in non-conference.’ I don’t do that. I used to, but it doesn’t work out well, in that you just start thinking too far ahead and thinking about the next game when you should be in the moment.”

“As far as expectations, I didn’t have a number on it. I didn’t think like ‘maybe we’re going to split with the Bay Area teams.’ It’s just going one game at a time. I do believe in these players though, I really do. They’re starting to believe in themselves, which is fun.”

Despite losing their leading scorer in forward Taryn Wicijowski (13.9 points per game), and guard Cheyenne Wilson, this year’s team has thus far been propelled by the core that was already in Salt Lake City.

Senior guard Dani Rodriguez and sophomore wing Tanaeya Boclair have both started every game, after combining to make 59 of a potential 60 starts last year. But while those two have provided a link from last year, it’s the three returnees that were sidelined at times last year that have made their presence felt, none more so than sophomore forward Emily Potter.

Potter, who missed all of last year recovering from an ACL tear, has proven herself as one of the most complete players in the conference, entering Friday night second in the Pac-12 in rebounding and blocks, third in field goal percentage, and eighth in scoring.

Also back after missing time last year (and the entirety of the 2013-14 season with a head and neck injury) is junior wing Paige Crozon, who ranks in the top-20 in the conference in scoring.

Combined, Potter and Crozon have provided a one-two punch that provides a little more than 40 percent of the team’s scoring, and almost half of its rebounds.

After appearing in just three games before an injury derailed her season, former walk-on guard Malia Nawahine has averaged nine points and three rebounds in 28 minutes a night.

Those five have combined to form an incredibly stable starting lineup, each starting all of the team’s first 16 games, no small feat after the injury concerns of years past. After making 24 starts last year, sophomore forward Joeseta Fatuesi has slotted into a bench role, while senior wing Katie Kuklok has established herself as arguably the most potent 3-point threat in the conference, making nearly half of her attempts.

Kuklok missed all of last year with a knee injury after transferring from Utah Valley.

While the team is on pace to allow about eight more points a game, the Utes have also averaged nearly 17 more per night on the offensive end. For opponents, that bump is likely a result of averaging two more made 3-pointers per game (Utah ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in defending the three), while the Utes have shot better both from 3-point range (33 percent, up from 28 last season) and from the field (up to 45 percent from 39).

Utah is also getting to the free-throw line at a much better clip, averaging 15 made free throws a game, a five point increase.

However, the most substantial change — in no small part due to the return of Potter — is on the glass. The team is second in the conference in both defensive rebounding, and rebounding.

“For me, that’s a pillar of what it takes to win games,” Roberts said. “We have a saying up on the all in our practice gym by Pat Riley, ‘No rebounds. No rings.’ If you don’t rebound, you’re not going to win. You’re certainly not going to beat good teams on the road and you’re not going to win any championships.”

There are still some red flags — the Utes are 11th in turnover margin, giving up the ball nearly six times per game more than their opponent, and are 10th in 3-point defense — but the need for improvement isn’t lost on the coach.

“There are always things we can do better,” Roberts said. “That’s my big thing. I’ve said this from the beginning. I just want the team to get better every week. I want to improve.”