Utah basketball: Utes lose pieces, but two big ones remain
The two don't necessarily need name tags. But there's little doubt that adjusting to new teammates and a new roles could be challenging for Michelle Plouffe and Danielle Rodriguez. At least at the beginning of the season.
There will be three new starters for the Utah women's basketball team. There won't be Taryn Wicijowski, who's out for the year with a torn ACL. There won't be Paige Crozon, a starter from last season who is out until 2014 due to lingering concussion issues. The experience of upperclassmen like Iwalani Rodrigues and Rachel Messer also are gone.
It's down to Plouffe, Rodriguez, Cheyenne Wilson and Ciera Dunbar. Those are the only four players on this team who truly have Division I experience.
"It causes you to worry a lot about a lot of things," Utes coach Anthony Levrets said.
Shockingly, the narrative isn't changing for this Utah team. Despite the expected and unexpected losses, this is a team that still believes it can reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. This is a team that still believes the talent level exceeds that of recent history. This is a team that will approach Friday night's opener against Denver with confidence and the belief it can succeed at the highest level.
Plouffe and Rodriguez are two big reasons for that belief.
At 6-foot-4, Plouffe is one of the best players in the Pac-12 and the country, a versatile All-America candidate who can do a little bit of everything. Rodriguez started at the point during her freshman season and is now ready for a bigger role. Levrets will lean on those two for scoring, playmaking and leadership. When games are tight, the offense will run through Plouffe and Rodriguez.
"I'm prepared to do different things, and I learned a lot last year," Rodriguez said. "I know that I'm going to have to score a bit more and lead more than I did as a freshman. But I played with a lot of veterans and watching them prepared me for what I'm about to face now."
Wilson and Dunbar will be full-time starters for the first time in their careers. But a chunk of Utah's optimism rests with a talented freshman class. Emily Potter, a 6-5 center, will start in the post. Former Springville star Malia Nawahine will see a lot of minutes off the bench at shooting guard. Wendy Anae, a 6-3 forward, will garner plenty of time as well.
If they can integrate with Plouffe and Rodriguez, this is a team that can play in the postseason. Maybe even the NCAA Tournament.
"We've got more athletes and length than we've had in the past," Levrets said. "We're looking forward to starting the season."
A closer look
Best case • Plouffe lives up to her All-American billing. Yes, Utah has talent around her. Yes, there is more athleticism than seemingly ever. But it doesn't tie together unless Plouffe is the best player on the floor, pretty much every night
Worst case • Danielle Rodriguez is either not healthy or ineffective. She is a workhorse at point guard and the only experienced point guard on the roster.
Watch out for • Freshman Emily Potter has the tools to be a star right away. She's 6-foot-5 and has a nice collection of moves in the post. She scored a team-high 24 points in the exhibition win over Westminster.
Friday • Denver 8:30 p.m.
Nov. 15 • Nebraska 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 19 • at Utah State 7 p.m.
Nov. 26 • at UNLV 4:45 p.m.
Nov. 29 • Butler 5 p.m. (Las Vegas)
Nov. 30 • Marquette 2:30 p.m. (Las Vegas)
Dec. 7 • Nevada 6 p.m.
Dec. 11 • Utah Valley 7 p.m.
Dec. 14 • at BYU 2 p.m.
Dec. 21 • Samford 3 p.m.
Dec. 30 • UC Santa Barbara 7 p.m.
Jan. 3 • at UCLA 6 p.m.
Jan. 5 • at USC 4 p.m.
Jan. 10 • Stanford 6 p.m.
Jan. 12 • California 1 p.m.
Jan. 17 • at Washington TBA
Jan. 19 • at Washington State 12 p.m.
Jan. 24 • Arizona State 7 p.m.
Jan. 26 • Arizona 3 p.m.
Jan. 29 • Colorado 7 p.m.
Feb. 2 • at Colorado 12 p.m.
Feb. 7 • at Oregon TBA
Feb. 9 • at Oregon State 12 p.m.
Feb. 14 • Washington State 7 p.m.
Feb. 16 • Washington 3 p.m.
Feb. 21 • at Arizona 7 p.m.
Feb. 23 • at Arizona State 1 p.m.
Feb. 27 • USC 7 p.m.
Mar. 2 • UCLA 2 p.m.
Mar. 7-10 • Pac-12 Tournament, Seattle