The Utes are 9-2 — the best 11 game start in the three-year tenure of Anthony Levrets. They have a marquee nonconference win over Michigan. They have an RPI of 108, and with six Pac-12 teams in the top 50, Utah is well within reach of an at-large NCAA bid if it plays well in the league.
But, all is not well. The Utes suffered an embarrassing defeat Saturday at the Huntsman Center to an inferior North Dakota team. Utah’s struggle to score, a chief ailment in recent years, is rearing its ugly head yet again. And the strong beginning has been tempered with inconsistent play the last few weeks.
A closer look
Nonconference » Utah went 9-2 for its best 11-game start in the Anthony Levrets era.
What’s ahead » Utah faces California, Stanford, and Colorado (twice) in the next two weeks. All are nationally ranked.
The RPI » Utah is ranked 108th, which is good, but needs improvement.
The strength » The Pac-12 has six teams ranked in the top 50 RPI. There are plenty of chances for marquee wins for Utah.
"We have to start playing better," Levrets said. "That’s for sure. We need to clean some things up if we’re going to be successful within the league."
The Pac-12 Conference scheduling committee has done Utah zero favors. The next four games — California, Stanford and two against Colorado — are all against ranked opponents. It’s a tough gantlet for any team to have to navigate. It makes it even tougher for the Utes, who have picked the wrong time to develop significant issues.
"I’m actually glad that the conference season is about to begin," senior guard Iwalani Rodrigues said. "I think the better the competition, the better we play. We have some things we need to work on, but we’re excited about the challenge that’s ahead."
With Taryn Wicijowski and Michelle Plouffe, Utah has one of the better frontcourts in the conference. Freshman point guard Danielle Rodriguez isn’t flashy, but she’s solid and she runs the offense well. Rodrigues just joined the 1,000-point club and has four years of experience at shooting guard. Rachel Messer is largely silent, until you notice her splashing down open jumpers.
But Messer is the only consistent outside threat, which allows teams to collapse on Wicijowski and Plouffe. Against North Dakota, Utah went 1-for-16 from beyond the 3-point arc, which led to prolonged scoring droughts with the game on the line.
Rodrigues is good off the dribble and can break down a defense. But playing the point takes away from her ability to score, so she usually plays off the ball.
"We have a bunch of really good pieces, and this is a team that likes each other," Rodrigues said. "We just have to make it mesh together."
Even with a good nonconference showing and with the strength of the Pac-12, the Utes are facing a crossroads to their season over the next two weeks. Fare well in the coming four games, and Utah puts itself in position to gain an NCAA berth and to garner a decent seed as well. If the Utes don’t play well, the rest of January and February will be spent trying to dig themselves out of a sizable hole.
Let the games begin.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.