San Francisco • The foundation has been laid, Lynne Roberts said, but at times, it still feels like she’s working in wet cement. That’s the dichotomy of focusing on the now, pressing tirelessly for wins today, yearning for respect in arguably the best conference in women’s college basketball, but also playing the long game.
“As we continue to climb and build,” said Roberts, who enters Year 3 as Utah’s head women’s basketball coach, “we’re doing it in the best conference in the country.”
At Wednesday’s Pac-12 women’s basketball Media Days inside the Pac-12 Network studios in downtown San Francisco, Roberts sat on the edge of her chair on the platform when asked if there is a blueprint to follow of making that climb up to where the game’s top programs — Stanford, UCLA, Cal, Oregon State — are, and staying there.
“I don’t think there’s any secrets to it,” Roberts said. “There’s no hand to tip.”
Build a culture, one that wins, produces entertaining basketball, graduates players.
“You can’t ever sidestep that,” Roberts added, “you can’t ever take a shortcut on that.”
And there was a second part to her answer.
“Talent.” That’s the necessary piece to a foundation, to building a known program nationwide coveted by top talents. It takes finding good players, putting them together and producing the sort of annual success the Pac-12’s best have the last decade or so.
“They’ve got established, healthy cultures and they’ve got talent,” Roberts said of the conference’s elite. “I feel like our culture’s in a really good spot, and I know culture is such a cliché word, but in terms of who we are, how we operate, how we conduct ourselves, we’re in a good place.”
Roberts reiterated that in her previous two stops as a head coach at Pacific and Chico State, she took over a program that had never won a conference championship until she arrived. Things turned around and she helped snap those respective skids.
“That’s the goal at Utah,” she said, “and I believe we can do it.”
Utah’s climb is indeed lengthy, especially in a Pac-12 that made history a year ago, qualifying a league-record seven teams for the NCAA Tournament. As coaches and team leaders filed in and out of the media workroom Wednesday, the consensus was that nothing is given in this league.
“If you want to play with the best,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, whose Wildcats were chosen 11th in the preseason coaches’ poll, “you come to the Pac-12.”
“Nothing is just given to you,” said UCLA senior Jordin Canada, “you have to earn it.”
And the Utes will. Roberts knows it, and so does her returning seniors.
Senior forward Tanaeya Boclair said this year’s Utah team has certain skill players, wherein year’s past, the Utes didn’t. It’s well-rounded and has an influx of newcomers who Roberts said will be needed throughout the course of the year. Boclair said she thinks the Utes finally have the pieces to click throughout the “ebb and flow” of a season.
As for her advice to the freshmen?
“This is what working hard looks like,” she said of conversations in practice. “This is what it looks like to play Pac-12 basketball.”
Utah went 16-15 (5-13 in Pac-12 play) a year ago. The Utes took the league by surprise in Roberts’ first year at the helm in 2015-16, finishing with its best conference record since entering the Pac-12. They battled it out with some the league’s best, even topping perennial contender Cal twice. Last year, however, was a struggle, senior Emily Potter said.
“Coach said last year the second year is the hardest,” said Potter, who was Utah’s leading scorer and rebounder from last season. “I think it was. I think we’re ready to make a jump this year.”
Roberts noted that in October, every program is mostly smiles and thinks it has a legitimate shot. The Pac-12 can, unfortunately, be a cruel reminder just how far some programs have to go. That calendar doesn’t commence until a few days before the New Year. For a program that has yet to be .500 or better in Pac-12 play, Utah has to prove it first, which its head coach knows all too well.
“For better or worse, Utah is not the sexy sell,” Roberts said. “We’re not on a beach. For us — and we’re climbing — we have to find those kids that want to be in the Pac-12, they want to play at the highest level.”
And something else, too.
“They also want to have to be the first to do something,” she added.