Utes mailbag: If you were buying stock in one Utah program, where is the biggest chance for gains?

Plus: State of the proposed football facility, SLCC players being recruited by the Utes, and more

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah women’s basketball head coach Lynne Roberts, center, and the team reacts after learning where and who they will play in the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament at the team’s practice facility, Sunday, March 13, 2022.

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The University of Utah women’s basketball team is readying to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. We’re going to start the Utes mailbag right there this week.

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “If you’re buying stock in one Utah sports program, where is the biggest opportunity for gain in the next four years? What do you buy?” - @johncanzanobft

A: First of all, this Utes mailbag has entered the big time because we have esteemed columnist John Canzano, formerly of the Oregonian, chiming in asking relevant Utah-related questions. It’s all downhill from here, folks.

With that out of the way, good question, not necessarily a wrong answer — but I’ll start out by saying the answer is not football.

Right after the Rose Bowl, I wrote how close the football program is to its ceiling. I believe that ceiling is winning the Rose Bowl, which the Utes are now close to accomplishing. Other programs on campus are further from their respective ceilings with plenty of room to grow much.

I would argue that the women’s basketball team has the biggest opportunity for gain in the next four years, a lot of that has to do with the fact that head coach Lynne Roberts and the Utes have finally broken through to the NCAA Tournament in her seventh season at the helm.

A few things here. This is probably paramount above all else, but Roberts, from all indications, has the support of her athletic director, Mark Harlan, and the school’s administration. Chris Hill hired Roberts in 2015, extended her contract in 2018 after she went to the WNIT three times, and, with her contract up in 2023, one has to believe an extension is coming at some point after the season the Utes have had, especially after going 19-33 between the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

This particular Utes team has 20 wins, advanced to the Pac-12 championship game and is going to the NCAA Tournament with two freshmen, Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson, as its leading scorers. All-Pac-12 guard Brynna Maxwell has two years of eligibility left, as does Kennady McQueen, who has played a leading role. Dasia Young has played a ton, Peyton McFarland has played a ton.

Unless there is going to be an unexpected exodus to the NCAA transfer portal, Utah should be primed to be very good again next season coming off a sixth-place finish in a loaded Pac-12. Things are pointed upwards, and with recruiting going well, why shouldn’t there be belief that Roberts can keep the trajectory in that direction?

Where the men’s basketball program is going remains hard to gauge early in Craig Smith’s tenure. I think there is reason to believe Smith can get things back going the right way, but in fairness, it remains to be seen. Roberts has her program going the right way, and given the youth on the roster, and the potential (likelihood?) of more job security, her program’s ceiling is not within sight yet.

Q: “What is the status of the football practice facility expansion? Have all the approvals been obtained to begin construction?” - @CaricDave

A: H.B. 191, which focused on a variety of revenue bond and capital facilities amendments, including Utah’s proposed $61.8 million football facility, made it through both the Senate and the House unanimously before the end of the 45-day legislative session on March 4 and now awaits the signature of Gov. Spencer Cox.

The last day Cox has to sign or veto bills from the just-finished legislative session is March 24. There is no reason, or at least no belief in the state political realm, that Cox will veto this bill.

Once Cox signs the bill, Utah’s Board of Trustees still has to approve everything to push the project forward. I hesitate to say this thing will be rubber-stamped, but if the Senate and House voted it through unanimously, the Board of Trustees is not going to stand in the way.

That said, if everything remains on schedule, the design phase would begin this spring, with completion expected in the fall of 2024.

The Board of Trustees is next scheduled to meet on April 12.

Q: “Anyone on the SLCC squad Utah should be on to, and are they? (Tyler Rawson was a good get.)” - @TheUFanCast

A: As this SLCC basketball season, which has reached the quarterfinals of the NJCAA National Tournament on Thursday afternoon in Hutchinson, Kan., has rolled on and more people started paying some attention, this has been a popular inquiry. Which, if any, Bruins should Utah be going after.

The answer is, probably none.

That’s not to say SLCC does not have Division I talent, because it does. The roster has three Division I transfers in Jordan Brinson (UAB, Utah Valley), Chase Adams (Portland) and Doctor Bradley (Cal State Fullerton), plus a fourth, Quincy McGriff, who committed to UTEP a couple of years back, but never got there.

As “Hutch” continues this week, none of those four guys have a Power Five offer. Brinson told me last week that West Virginia has been in consistent contact, and Adams indicated to me that some Power Fives have been sniffing around, but their respective offer lists are exclusively low and mid-majors. Same with Bradley, a Los Angeles native whose offer list is full of Conference USA and Big West programs.

All it takes is one school to say yes, though. Brinson, the victim of what was essentially a depth crunch at UVU before opting for SLCC, had 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals in a round-of-16 win on Tuesday.

Brinson feels like the guy on this Bruins team that will eventually have the best list of offers, but I don’t expect Utah to be among them.

Q: “Which small conference basketball arenas should be on my bucket list?” - @nstod

A: Nice.

Do we consider the Ivy League a small conference? Either way, The Palestra should be on every fan’s bucket list. You don’t have to see Penn there necessarily. If you want closer to the religious experience of a Palestra trip, go to the Philadelphia Catholic League championship game in late February.

While you’re out that way, I would consider swinging by Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium.

My personal favorites, in no particular order:

Draddy Gymnasium, Manhattan College — When the Jaspers have it going, the place rocks. It also feels like you’re walking into a bowling alley, so there’s that.

Rose Hill Gymnasium, Fordham University — One of the cathedrals of the sport. Ninety-seven years old, looks and feels every bit its age.

Pope Athletic Complex aka “The Pope”, St. Francis College — The nickname is awesome, but this is on here because it’s sort of absurd by Division I standards as it only seats 1,200. The fact this place has hosted the NEC Tournament championship game is hilarious.

Carnesecca Arena, St. John’s University — The Johnnies play most of their home schedule at Madison Square Garden, but Carnesecca still gets a handful of non-conference games, plus an unattractive Big East game or two.

Q: “Are we a baseball school?” - @CelticThrust

A: Is there such a thing as a baseball school? Maybe some of these West Coast schools that are baseball powers, but don’t play FBS football? Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara, and the like?

Anyway, Utah’s baseball team is steadily turning into an intriguing story, and a lot of that has to do with, well, no, it’s not a baseball school, and has never been confused with one. The Utes are off to their best start since at least 1981 at 11-4-1 following a 10-3 loss to BYU on Tuesday evening at Smith’s Ballpark. Of those non-wins, a 4-3 seven-inning loss at San Diego State and a 9-9 10-inning tie at Loyola Marymount were both byproducts of games being ended early due to the Utes’ travel schedule.

First-year head coach Gary Henderson, formerly Utah’s associate head coach under now-retired Bill Kinneberg, knows what he’s doing. Henderson was the SEC Coach of the Year at Kentucky in 2012, then coached Mississippi State to the 2018 College World Series as the interim head coach before arriving at Utah.

Utah baseball, a cold-weather program that has finished 10th or worse in the Pac-12 seven times since entering the conference in 2012, is a nice story, but it also brings back to light the fact that it does not have an on-campus stadium, let alone an on-campus facility.

The extent of Utah baseball’s on-campus presence is limited to a practice field on Guardsman Way, across the street from the Eccles Football Center, which includes an indoor hitting shed. When cold or bad weather hits, the baseball team uses the indoor football facility. It cannot scrimmage there, so the usage is essentially limited to drills.

During a Salt Lake Tribune interview late last year, Utah athletics director Mark Harlan said they would take a fresh look at the feasibility of an on-campus baseball stadium, but there has been no indication that one is coming any time soon.