The TribUte newsletter: Can the Utah women’s basketball team sustain this level of success?

Plus: The women’s team hosting NCAAs is a tremendous advantage, Runnin’ Utes’ NIT hopes are fading

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) and Utah forward Dasia Young (34) celebrate the Utes 84-78 win over the Stanford Cardinals, in PAC-12 action, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023.

The biggest story at the University of Utah right now is women’s basketball, so here’s a thought offered to me earlier this week by a faithful reader: Has this season been a stroke of lightning or is this a sustainable level for Lynne Roberts’ program?

I’m not really on board with the notion that this season has been lightning in a bottle. The Utes won 21 games last season, advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament championship game, played in the NCAA Tournament, and the majority of key pieces returned this season. Yes, Utah was unranked to start the season, but it had a chance to be very good. Did outsiders think the Utes would be as good as they’ve been? No, and a lot of that is because, well, who knew they hit gold out of the NCAA Transfer Portal with Alissa Pili?

Whether or not what’s happening now is sustainable is an interesting question worth diving into fully once this season ends, but for starters, this team has no seniors. Portal defections are always possible, but bringing back everyone from a 25-plus win team means Utah is going to open 2023-24 likely ranked inside the top 10. From an on-the-floor perspective, yeah, this is sustainable, at least in the short term.

I think one big question coming out of this season is what attendance starts to look like coming off this season. Across 14 games, Utah had an average announced attendance of 3,025, a strong number buoyed by some big numbers down the stretch, including 9,611 for Stanford last Saturday.

I think there are certainly new fans buying into the product and are likely to show up more, but some of the same problems will persist, specifically the Pac-12 playing games on Sunday, which is going to be a tough sell in this market. That’s an uphill battle any sport on that campus will have a tough time winning.

Of course, these are good problems to have if you’re the administration, trying to figure out how to sell your successful product when said product projects to be successful again next season. You’d rather have this problem than the alternative.

Let’s close this up with a thought in response to the initial thought that prompted me to write this.

What is the Huntsman Center going to draw for three NCAA Tournament games over two days later this month? Keep in mind, the NCAA is going to set the pricing, and there is technically no guarantee Utah is playing on the second day.

The NCAA Tournament coming here feels like a litmus test for women’s basketball in Salt Lake City.

Other things on my mind

In spite of Thursday’s upset loss in a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal, the Utah women ending up as a top-16 NCAA Tournament seed, which allows them to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, is imminent.

That strikes me as just a colossal advantage for the teams hosting, right? No planes, no buses, presumably no hotel, the ability to sleep in your own bed, using your own on-campus facilities, etc. The Utes should be a sizable favorite to win twice and get to the Sweet 16, but Thursday’s loss adds an interesting wrinkle.

Utah going home early from the Pac-12 Tournament now gives it at least 15, and possibly 16 days until the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That timeline is not new given how early the Pac-12 Tournament is played every year, but that’s a long time to manage everyone and everything if you’re head coach Lynne Roberts.

Still, the point stands. The fact Utah will very likely host two games cannot be overstated as a competitive edge.

• The Runnin’ Utes’ presumptive at-large berth to the NIT does not look as secure as it once did. That’s what happens when you lose six of eight, and are staring at a trip to Colorado on Saturday, potentially without two starters and a third banged up.

As conference tournaments begin to unfold, a reminder that if a regular-season champion in a low or mid-major conference loses in a conference tournament, they are guaranteed an NIT spot, which will take away an at-large berth for someone each time.

Utah fans should be rooting for as little conference tournament chaos as possible, and yeah, a win in Boulder on Saturday would certainly help the cause, too.

For what it’s worth, NIT bracketologist (yes, such a thing exists) John Templon currently has Utah barely in the field of 32, but in fairness, he has said for weeks that he is gearing up for chaos on the back end of the bracket, which is where the Utes currently reside.

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