Utah Utes mailbag: Would a Pac-12 championship for women’s hoops be Utah’s unlikeliest accomplishment?

Plus: Runnin’ Utes record over the final six games, Utah baseball, which football freshmen may start, and more

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah women’s basketball head coach Lynne Roberts shows her discontent with the referees as the University of Utah hosts the Oklahoma Sooners in women’s NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

With just weeks to go in the regular season, the University of Utah women’s basketball team is very much in the mix to win the Pac-12 regular-season championship, and of course the Pac-12 Tournament next month in Las Vegas.

To do either, or even both of those things, the seventh-ranked Utes are going to have to go through Stanford, the preeminent gatekeeper of West Coast women’s college basketball for more than 30 years.

We’re going to start this Utes mailbag right there.

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: “Given the consistency of traditional powers in women’s college basketball, would the Utes winning the conference over Stanford be Utah’s most unlikely athletics accomplishment in the Pac-12 era?” - @leftcoastute

A: When you say winning the conference, do you mean the regular-season title? The Pac-12 Tournament? Both? Actually, it doesn’t matter.

The Cardinal have won the Pac-12 regular-season crown 25 times since 1989 and the conference tournament 15 times since 2002. Oregon has broken through on both fronts a number of times in recent years, but for all intents and purposes, Stanford owns the Pac-12.

The top of the sport at the college level on the women’s side is a very difficult club to enter, and it’s even harder to sustain that type of excellence. But Utah has reached the point where it is now legitimately challenging for Pac-12 supremacy. Given what Stanford has been for three decades, it would be a monumental accomplishment if the Utes win the regular-season or tournament crowns, but I don’t think it’s the unlikeliest athletics accomplishment of the Pac-12 era. There are two better options.

• Utah baseball, which does not have an on-campus stadium and barely has an on-campus presence, won the Pac-12 in 2016. That makes no sense if you consider what the Utes are up against every year in terms of resources.

• Utah football getting to the Rose Bowl in 2022 for the first time in its 11th year as a Pac-12 member felt like another monumental achievement. When the Utes began in the conference, they were behind in every conceivable measure, including talent and recruiting, but made it all up and got to the point of contention quicker than reasonably expected.

Q: “How close do you think the Utes hoops program is to being a top-tier team year over year in the Pac-12? Also, how close are they to having expectations of making the NCAA Tournament consistently?” - @Thebighornsheep

A: Year over year is a good question, mostly because Craig Smith believes he can still build a sustainable program, rather than re-fueling every year out of the NCAA Transfer Portal.

As presently constructed, I’m still bullish on Smith and the pieces he has. Branden Carlson is a cornerstone, Gabe Madsen has taken steps forward, Lazar Stefanovic’s best is something you can lean on — but all that said, Smith clearly needs more, if not different pieces in some cases to get over the hump. I genuinely believe they’re not that far away if everyone of consequence returns for 2023-24.

Making the NCAA Tournament consistently is something we’ve discussed in the past. At a place like Utah, I don’t think it’s out of the question to be making the field of 68 two or even three out of every five seasons, and maybe one of those two or three includes a second-weekend run?

Say whatever you want about Larry Krystkowiak’s tenure, but he had Utah relevant for five consecutive seasons, which included a Sweet 16 appearance, another NCAA appearance, and a trip to the Garden for the NIT semis.

As a Utah fan, would you sign on for that? Two NCAAs, including a second-weekend run, and a deep NIT appearance within a five-year stretch? Come on now, be honest with me, you know you would.

Q: “Now that we’ve seen the Runnin’ Utes twice without Gabe Madsen, what is a reasonable and realistic record without him over these last six regular-season games, and will that be enough to hang on to an NIT bid?” - @UBlender44

A: FWIW, I covered Utah’s bracketology situation earlier this week, both in terms of the NCAA Tournament and the NIT.

The NIT bubble tends to get wonky, especially as regular-season conference champions in the low and mid-major conferences lose in conference tournaments and therefore end up using NIT automatic bids, which means bubble teams have to get pushed aside.

All things being equal, if Utah has not already secured a spot in the NIT, it is probably one win away. If the Utes can find two more wins, a first-round NIT home game at the Huntsman Center is likely as a top-4 seed.

Within this final six-game stretch of Colorado, at Arizona, at Arizona State, UCLA, USC, and at Colorado, on paper, there is at least one win there, and a second would be unsurprising. If Utah gets a split of those final six without Madsen and no bench to currently speak of, it’s a great accomplishment.

Personally, I think Utah should beat Colorado once, if not twice. Beyond the Buffaloes, Arizona State has lost five of six.

I would be at least mildly surprised if the Utes managed to not make the NIT.

Q: “Shouldn’t we all be watching Ute women’s basketball over Ute men’s basketball? No. 7 in the country, 20-2 record, have been consistently good for years now with a great coach. If I still lived in Utah, I’d be taking my daughters to watch Alissa Pili dominate well before hitting up a men’s game.” - @inglenutz

A: I don’t tell people how to spend their time, and I certainly don’t tell people how to spend their money. Here’s what I know.

The product that Lynne Roberts is putting on the floor is a lot of fun. Her team shoots a lot of triples, her team scores a lot of points, her team gets up and down the floor, her team defends. Alissa Pili is a terrific talent, and while not the sole reason for Utah’s success, she is absolutely a primary reason the Utes are moving through uncharted waters this winter. Objectively, Utah plays a very watchable, very enjoyable brand of basketball. It is worth checking out live if you haven’t already.

I don’t know that you need to be supporting the women’s program at the expense of hammering the men’s program. I’ll be honest, this has been a very odd season to cover the men’s team, simply because a lot of fans (not you specifically) are finding any and every reason to complain about everything, and I do mean everything. It’s exhausting.

A quick list: The upper-bowl curtains, lack of playing time for Mike Saunders Jr., lack of parking options, the upper-bowl curtains, the team isn’t good enough to go to the NCAA Tournament, the upper-bowl curtains, bad concession options at the Huntsman Center, and the upper-bowl curtains.

They’re exponentially more competitive than last season, and they’re probably going to the postseason, which beats last season’s slog. Give it a rest already.

Q: “Any word on a home for Utah baseball once Smith’s Ballpark inevitably becomes apartments? Have you tried Supremo Pizza in Midvale?” - @utedaddy

A: There is just no doubt that the site Smith’s Ballpark sits on turns into apartments or condominiums, right?

Anyway, good question, and I think it sort of depends on how fast the University of Utah can get a stadium built.

For those unaware, things are moving along with an on-campus baseball stadium. Utes athletic director Mark Harlan told me before the Rose Bowl that he hoped to get things launched in 2023. Last month, Harlan took it further, indicating on ESPN700 that he and his team had zeroed in on the presumed No. 1 choice in which to build, on Guardsman Way across the street from the Eccles Football Center.

If an on-campus baseball stadium gets greenlit and completed ahead of the 2025 season, at which point the Bees will have moved to Daybreak, this question is moot. If not, well, then there’s certainly questions as to what the Utes baseball program will do.

If Smith’s Ballpark, which is owned by Salt Lake City, is still standing and available, one solution could be to continue using it. Another comparable solution could be to play “home” games in Ogden at 8,200-seat Lindquist Field, home of the Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League.

Utah played nine games at Lindquist Field in 2021, when COVID-19 protocols hampered its ability to play at Smith’s Ballpark.

As for Supremo Pizza in Midvale, I’ve had a good number of people tell me I have to try it, a notion that has yielded mixed results in the past. I still love you guys anyway. I’ll get there eventually.

Q: “What position, if any, has a freshman starting against Florida Week 1? And is it because they won the job or is it because of injuries?” - @Ongogabl0

A: It makes no sense to try and guess/predict what injuries might occur, so we’ll skip that part.

Utah could use some help at the nickel with Clark Phillips III and Malone Mataele both gone. Depending on who you ask, Smith Snowden might fit into that spot immediately, but one thing to remember is he’s not enrolling early. Snowden will not arrive on campus until June, so he will be a bit behind the 8-ball. Still time to get caught up, but just food for thought.

The other name that comes to mind is Spencer Fano and whether or not he can crack an offensive line that projects to return three starters, with Braeden Daniels off to the NFL and Paul Maile transferring to BYU. Some of this depends on what the staff decides to do with versatile veteran option Jaren Kump, but it stands to reason that Fano is going to enter camp with at least a reasonable possibility to start the opener.

Fano, and how he fits into that group, will be a key storyline at spring practice, which begins March 22.

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