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Utah Utes mailbag: Is Utah in a holding pattern with Pac-12 questions unanswered?

Plus: What are the biggest concerns heading into spring football?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah head coach Lynne Roberts as Utah hosts Washington, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

The University of Utah women’s basketball team is ranked No. 8 in the latest AP Top 25, and is in a good spot for a top-4 NCAA Tournament seed — which would mean the chance to host two games at the Huntsman Center.

When you have the type of success the Utes are having, your head coach could be in demand. 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: “Are there concerns about Lynne Roberts leaving after this year? What would Utah need to do to try and keep her in SLC?” — @robinsry

A: The fact this is even a question right now is a testament to the job Roberts has done, not just this season, but over a number of seasons in getting Utah to national relevance.

When you’re as good as the Utes are right now, sometimes, another program comes to try and steal your coach. That’s not to say something is imminent with Roberts, but it’s just the reality of how her profession works sometimes.

If someone tries to poach Roberts, money would help, and I’d be curious to see if Utah is willing or able to pony up more of it after she received a monstrous contract extension last spring. Roberts is currently working under a five-year deal with a base salary of $679,500 with no escalators. The previous five-year deal, which was set to expire this June before the extension was agreed to, was paying her a base of $350,000 with no escalators.

The big problem if someone else wants to hire Roberts: Her buyout is currently in the neighborhood of $2.6 million. That’s a big number working in favor of the Utes.

Are there concerns this is going to actually happen? Not yet. Is this plausible in six weeks, especially if Utah makes a deep NCAA Tournament run? I think so.

Q: “Heading into spring ball and summer workouts, what are some major concerns Utah must address this offseason in your opinion in order to get over the hump and win a Rose Bowl next season (or more)?” — @CarterGee43

A: First, a reminder that the Rose Bowl is a College Football Playoff semifinal next season. If Utah ends up in a third straight Rose Bowl, a lot of things went right and the Utes caught some breaks along the way.

Utah wasn’t that far away last season. Before the Rose Bowl loss to Penn State, two of its three losses at Florida and at Oregon were by three points each. The 2023 team will look different, but there aren’t a lot of wholesale changes at most positions.

A quick, incomplete list of potential concerns entering spring practice:

• QB: Cam Rising’s health is looming over everything as we’ll discuss below.

• RB: Not a concern necessarily, but certainly more of a talking point than most want to admit.

• WR: Need more production from the position, a tale as old as time at Utah.

• CB: Clark Phillips III is gone. Who slides in there, and what does the nickel look like? Hello, Smith Snowden?

Q: “Going into spring ball, could we see someone beat out Bryson Barnes with how the ending of the Rose Bowl happened?” — @gorringe_chase

A: What happened in the Rose Bowl with Barnes after Rising exited is irrelevant.

A few days prior, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was pretty clear in talking to reporters that one big emphasis in spring ball would be Barnes vs. Nate Johnson vs. Brandon Rose for QB2. That notion now becomes even more important because with Rising rehabbing a torn ACL, you have to figure out who your most viable option is behind him if he is not ready for the opener in seven-plus months.

On one hand, it’s time to figure out what to do with Barnes, a fourth-year junior who does not project as a full-time starter. Not this year, and not next year. He has proven to be a reliable backup, but on the other hand, if you think Johnson has a firm command of the offense, and if you think he has a real chance to be the future starter, it’s time to get him into that QB2 spot and stop dumping reps into Barnes. Either way, it will play itself out, maybe not by the end of spring, but at some point for sure.

Q: “At what age should it be illegal for a person to wear a team’s jersey at a game or wear a baseball cap backwards?” — @richblove

A: I wear baseball caps. I wear them frontwards, I wear them backwards. Flat brims, curved brims, doesn’t matter. I don’t wear them every day in the spring and summer, but definitely often. Sometimes it’s for style, or if I know I’m going to be outside for a long period of time, sometimes it’s to protect my balding dome.

That said, I am not going to get on my soapbox as I approach 41 years old and tell you that you can’t do the same thing. It took a lot of self-reflection and soul-searching to come to that conclusion. Credit to me for being mature about it.

When it comes to jerseys, I find it interesting you indicate that wearing them at a game is a no-no because to me, that should be one of the only places it should be socially acceptable.

To be clear, if you are an adult, let’s say 22 and/or out of college, walking around in a jersey starts to feel a little ridiculous. I had a slew of jerseys as a kid and was wearing jerseys every now and again until probably my mid-20s, but that’s neither here, nor there. We’re here to talk about you, not me.

Exceptions to the jersey rule, in no particular order:

• At an actual sporting event or watch party. You’re a Jazz fan and you’re at Vivint Arena for a game? Rock that Walker Kessler jersey.

• Your favorite team is getting ready to play in a championship game/series. If the Jets ever get to a Super Bowl, catch me in my Curtis Martin jersey in the days leading up to it.

• Wearing a jersey of the college you attended. You paid $200,000 in tuition and/or you have a degree means you don’t have to follow the rules. I’ve seen a Utah Kuzma jersey or two walking around the Huntsman Center. Do your thing.

Q: “Now that the curtain crowd got their wish for this weekend, what should those 17 [fans] move on to next? I’m going with Big 12.” — @RedSoxRooskie

A: I covered this in a previous mailbag, but yeah, it’s been a bad season for fans complaining about things that in many cases just don’t matter.

The upper bowl curtains at the Huntsman Center are up this weekend with No. 4 UCLA and USC visiting, so congratulations to the loud minority of fans that just have not stopped on this topic. Utah-UCLA is a 9 p.m. tip on Thursday night. Good luck making a dent in the upper bowl, even as Utah uses a couple of different mechanisms this week to give away free tickets.

To your point, some fans are going to be fixated on the Big 12. That’s not going to end until the Pac-12 has a media rights deal and there is a Grant of Rights in place with Utah and the rest of the conference membership.

Other prime candidates for complaints moving forward, in no particular order:

• Mike Saunders Jr.’s lack of floor time this weekend with Rollie Worster presumed out with an ankle injury.

• Basketball recruiting and what Craig Smith needs to do this offseason to get the Utes over the hump after a productive second season.

• Something specifically to do with spring practice, I just haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly what yet. I feel like it’s staring right at me. Maybe quarterback-related with Rising injured and unavailable?

Q: “In the event we get a home NIT game, is there any chance the athletic department comes up with a decent strategy to get people to the game? Preferably something involving the curtains up?” — @TheJugg801

A: The NIT is always a tough sell.

It doesn’t matter who’s playing, it doesn’t matter if Utah gets a Power Six team at the Huntsman Center, it’s going to be hard to convince people to care. My experience covering the NIT as a beat writer is limited to three games across consecutive seasons, but it absolutely felt like a consolation prize, which is exactly what the NIT is.

Next problem: Selection Sunday is March 12. Utah’s potential first-round home game could be played as early as March 14, less than 48 hours after it learns its opponent. At this point, I would assume there is at least some level of planning inside the athletic department in case Utah does host, but not knowing who the opponent is does not help.

As for what to do with the curtains, good question. When Utah hosted NIT games in 2017 and 2018, the upper bowl was closed, and there’s no good reason to believe it would be open this time around. The Utes have had trouble drawing all winter. That’s not changing in three weeks.

Q: “Over/under .5 wins for the men’s basketball team the rest of the way?” — @el_diamante3

A: I assume we’re talking about just the regular season here, which is home for UCLA, home for USC, and at Colorado.

This question was submitted on Monday morning, before we knew exactly what Rollie Worster’s status was, although we already presumed he was out. At that point, I was willing to take the over. The Buffaloes are not good, and the Trojans are not good enough where you can mark that one as an automatic Utes loss.

Since Monday morning, Craig Smith has made clear twice that he does not expect Worster to play this weekend, which is compounded by Gabe Madsen not ready to play either with the high-ankle sprain.

I would like making this decision a lot better after seeing what the rotation looks like vs. UCLA, but getting even one of those three without Worster, let alone Madsen feels daunting.

I’ll take the under, which still likely gives Utah a manageable first-round matchup at the Pac-12 Tournament, so there’s that.

Q: “Is it just me (or just the fans), but does it seem like Utah athletics is in a strategic holding pattern until the Pac-12/10 future is more certain? Are coaches and players able to block it out while Mark Harlan and Taylor Randall work through the “big picture” media and realignment issues?” — @leftcoastute

A: I’m not really sure what to make of this.

I can’t imagine any athlete on that campus is even remotely concerned with what’s going on in terms of the media rights deal and realignment issues. It’s not their problem and it’s just not something that needs to be registering for them in the middle of the 37 other things they all deal with daily.

If you want to believe the realignment possibilities are part of conversations with parents of recruits and recruits themselves, OK, maybe I can see that. A class of 2024 football recruit might want to know what conference he’ll be playing in three, four, five years down the road, sure. Until there is some clarity on the media rights deal, that will technically be up in the air.

Is Utah in a strategic holding pattern? I guess, but if that’s the case, then so is every athletic department in the conference. What does the media rights deal look like? How many years? How much money? Does it require expansion to get done? If not, will George Kliavkoff look to expand after the deal is done, as was the original intention?

There’s really nothing else right now beyond those questions.

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