Utah women’s hoops took its lumps in rugged Pac-12, but late-season play, 2020 recruits breed optimism

Lynne Roberts just completed her fifth season as the head coach at the University of Utah, and her 18th season as a head coach.

Normally when a season finishes, Roberts readily acknowledges that she is exhausted and could use a break, and why not? Between the travel and the pressure at the high-major level, 30-plus games can turn into a real grind, especially with a young, inexperienced team like Roberts had during a 14-17 season.

The difference between now and the previous 17 seasons, though, is that Roberts doesn’t sound like she needs a break after 31 games.

“Every season is different, every team has a recipe and ingredients, and I like our group,” Roberts told The Salt Lake Tribune via phone on Wednesday. “This year, I’m the most excited I’ve ever been about an offseason. The next two years are going to be fun.”

If Utah finds tangible success in the next two seasons, it will have come because the 2019-20 team set the table. Roberts had just three seniors at her disposal, while seven of her 13 players had two seasons or fewer of experience in her program.

As expected with so much green, there were plenty of ups and downs, especially early with a lot of time spent on the road. A season-opening pair of losses in Cincinnati to the Bearcats and Xavier, winning the four-team Bank of Hawaii Tournament in Honolulu, a win at BYU, a home loss to a Providence team that finished 3-15 in the Big East.

“There were a few games where it was a bad time to have a bad game, but I thought we competed the whole year,” Roberts said. “The preseason schedule was too tough, but as a coach, it’s such a slippery slope. You want to build confidence, but you don’t want false confidence. As a competitor, you’d like a couple of those games back. We could’ve won some more games.”

One of the bigger problems Utah faced was completely out of its control. Spearheaded by the nation’s best player, Sabrina Ionescu, and a legitimate national-title contender in the University of Oregon, the Pac-12 was one of the top conferences in the nation. When the NCAA Tournament was cancelled on March 12 due to COVID-19 fears, ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme had six Pac-12 teams projected for the field of 64, behind only the Big Ten (eight) and SEC (seven).

To highlight just how hard the Pac-12 was, and how young the Utes were, their first three league games were at No. 3 Oregon State, at the second-ranked Ducks, and vs. No. 8 UCLA. Utah went 0-3, losing by an average of 28.7 points per game.

Roberts’ bullishness on what the future could be two-fold. For one, the Utes finished the conference schedule better than they started it. A road sweep of the Washington schools in early February, a breakthrough win over No. 21 Arizona State and a win over the Huskies in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament all marked progress and growth.

Two, Roberts has the highest-rated recruiting class in the history of the program coming in this summer. Point guard Kennady McQueen and 6-foot-3 forward Peyton McFarland are both rated as four-star recruits by ESPN HoopGurlz. Both were named Gatorade Player of the Year in their respective states, McQueen in Utah out of North Summit High School and McFarland in Idaho out of Boise High School.

“You take the recruiting class and the fact we have the bulk of the core returning, but more than that, I think the mindset is right,” Roberts said. “They all chose us, they chose Utah for the vision of ‘Let’s do things that have never been done before.’

“We fell short this year, but that vision does not change and I think this group really does want to do that.”