San Francisco • Nearly four hours after the preseason coaches poll was announced, Lynne Roberts still hadn’t seen it. During a brief break amid the madness of the annual Pac-12 Media Day festivities on Wednesday, Utah’s women’s basketball coach had to be informed by a reporter where her Utes stacked up compared to the rest of one of the best conferences in college basketball.
“You’re eighth,” she was told.
Roberts didn’t flinch.
“Someone asked me where I think we’d go,” she said, “and I said somewhere between six and nine. Which is usual.”
This is the Pac-12: A tier of nationally-elite teams coupled with a group of underdogs who are eager to prove they can hang, that they can build a program, albeit slowly. This is the fourth year under Roberts, who was asked again and again Wednesday what needed to be different for the Utes to make “the jump,” which in the parlance of college basketball means the NCAA Tournament.
The Utes, under Roberts, have been tough. They’ve surprised some of those elite conference teams the last three years, but they’ve also come up short, come up so agonizingly close in heartbreaking losses that otherwise might have played a direct role in having a say come March. In conference play since she arrived, Utah is 21-33. But Roberts isn’t worried about what Utah hasn’t done.
“This is when you can kind of get lost in the pressure, feeling like, ‘OK, it’s now,’” Roberts told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I think we need to focus more on what we have done, and I’m proud of what we have done. This league is unforgiving, in a word.”
A year ago, the Pac-12 had three teams in the Elite Eight. There were six teams in the NCAA Tournament last season, marking the fifth-straight year at least five conference teams earned tournament berths. Utah, each year, was left barely on the outside looking in.
“It’s such a slippery slope of woe is me,” Roberts said. “There’s a reality of it, too.”
Roberts wants her Utes to be the program that can challenge, and maybe be one of those six teams this spring, and she wants her Utes to be the team opponents know they’ll have to deliver their absolute best against in order to have a shot. Last season, Utah lost a buzzer-beater at USC and later fell in overtime to UCLA.
If either of those games go Utah’s way late in the season, they’re in.
Utah also fell to Colorado and lost at BYU. The Utes win those games, they’re in, too.
“I have to challenge myself not to focus on the fact that we haven’t made it and the fact that we need to,” Roberts said. “I do believe in how to get there and it just takes time.”
The path, again, will be anything but easy. It’ll be rocky, because that’s part of the deal. Utah lost former star center Emily Potter to graduation, but return the team’s top two leading scorers in seniors Megan Huff (14.7) and Daneesha Provo (12.3) as well as three starters from a year ago.
“[It’s about] being competitive,” said Provo, “and going into every game with fight.”
“We’re still climbing,” Huff said.
Alongside Huff and Provo, Utah returns sharpshooter sophomore Tori Williams, junior point guard Erika Bean and guards Jordan Cruz and Kiana Moore. Back in the fold, too, is redshirt freshman Dru Gylten, who missed all of last year with an injury and can play different spots. There was a very bad early break recently, one that will alter the way Utah plays this year.
Sophomore center Maurane Corbin tore her ACL two weeks ago in individual workouts. The 6-foot-5 Corbin was going to be leaned upon to be Potter’s full-time replacement, but now Utah will have to wait another year for the talented young Canadian to be back in red.
“It sucks,” Roberts said.
She doesn’t want to be a transactional coach leading a transactional program, measuring success on which postseason tournament the Utes are in. They’ve made three in a row now, but have yet to make their NCAA debut since entering the Pac-12. The last time Utah was in the NCAA Tournament was 2011, the Utes’ last year in the Mountain West Conference.
The process is ongoing, Roberts said. Her days coaching in the West Coast Conference are long gone, when she could glance at the schedule and circle potential win after win. It’s the opposite in the Pac-12.
Gimmes don’t exist.
“There’s none,” she said. “You could get picked 12th in the league and you’re going to upset some people. The coaching is too good. The teams in the top third, those are Final Four teams and you have to play those guys twice a year. That’s what you sign up for. That’s who I signed up for.”
PAC-12 WOMEN’S BASKETBALL POLL
Team (First Place) Points
1 Oregon 121 (11)
2 Stanford 107 (1)
3 Oregon State 104
4 California 82
5 Arizona State 79
6 UCLA 74
7 USC 66
8 Utah 50
9 Colorado 44
10 Arizona 28
11 Washington State 19
12 Washington 18