Utah Utes mailbag: Was this Utah women’s basketball season a one-hit wonder?

Plus: Utah’s biggest rival, maximizing Craig Smith’s four open scholarships, Kim Mulkey’s wardrobe, and more

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Lynne Roberts as Utah hosts Princeton, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

The University of Utah women’s basketball program just finished a landmark season in the Sweet 16, and there’s every reason to believe the Utes can be in a similar position at this time next year.

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: “Assuming Lynne Roberts remains as women’s basketball coach, can this be sustained, or is this just a flash-in-the-pan situation?” — @BillJoyner18

A: Time will tell of course, but it would appear Roberts has her program lined up for the season that just ended to be more than an anomaly.

Utah just went 27-5, was a play or two away from getting to the Elite Eight, and did it without a senior on the roster. Assuming everyone will be back is a dangerous game in this era of the NCAA Transfer Portal and immediate eligibility, but let’s assume that everyone, or at least everyone of consequence, is back for 2023-24.

That means you’re returning the Pac-12 Player of the Year in Alissa Pili as a senior, Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson as juniors, and Kennady McQueen as a third-year sophomore. If no one leaves, Utah is going to open next season ranked inside the top 10, complete with big expectations as to where the season could end.

Beyond 2023-24, Roberts still projects to return a huge chunk of the core as upperclassmen, although Pili will be a sizable loss. That is why you recruit, though, and Roberts’ recruiting has clearly bore fruit in recent years. Furthermore, recruiting is getting “easier,” because with the success, you’re getting into more homes, deep in the mix with more higher-level recruits than you probably were just two or three years ago.

Utah’s success this season does not strike me as a one-year wonder. Roberts, who is under contract through 2027, has this thing built to be sustainable.

Q: “Who is Utah’s biggest rival in the Pac-12?” — @johncanzanobft

A: Let me first tell you who it’s not.

The Utah-Colorado “rivalry” is that in name only, hyped by the uninformed as something important when it is clearly not. That “rivalry” was dormant for 49 years until both sides joined the Pac-12 in 2011 and therefore had to play each other every year. If Deion Sanders gets the Buffaloes going, and the matchup starts to be meaningful late in the season, let’s revisit this.

Anyway, I don’t think the Utes have been in the Pac-12 long enough to have developed a real, true, standing rivalry with anyone, but if I’m made to pick someone, I think it has to be USC, an old South Division rival it will have played every year finishing in 2023 as the Trojans prepare to leave for the Big Ten.

A Utah-USC football game generally means something, and in my short experience on this beat, I don’t think fans have gotten up more for another opponent. A quick synopsis of recent Utah-USC games.

Sept. 20, 2019: USC 30, Utah 23: Third-string Trojans QB Matt Fink sinks the 10th-ranked Utes in the Pac-12 opener at the Coliseum. Utah proceeds to rip off eight straight wins to claim the South.

Oct. 10, 2021: Utah 42, USC 26: Two weeks after Aaron Lowe’s death, the Utes execute what amounted to an exorcism, winning at the Coliseum for the first time in forever.

Oct. 15, 2022: Utah 43, USC 42: Cam Rising’s keeper on fourth-and-goal at the 1, followed by a keeper on the two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter caps a 475-yard, 5-touchdown tour de force.

Dec. 2, 2022: Utah 47, USC 24: Rising again runs roughshod, this time in the Pac-12 championship game as Utah gets back to the Rose Bowl. The loss ended USC’s hopes of getting to the College Football Playoff in Lincoln Riley’s first season.

This may be Utah’s main Pac-12 rival, but the funny thing is, Utah is probably no better than USC’s third-most important rival behind UCLA and Notre Dame.

In any case, the Pac-12 is losing a lot with USC leaving, and that includes those annual meetings with Utah.

Q: “Utah has four open scholarships. Best way to maximize this. Transfers? True freshmen? 87-year-olds that are fans thinking they still play?” — @RedSoxRooskie

A: Unless there’s some old man in Section T that can hit the jumper, the answer is absolutely the transfer portal. We’ve been over this before, and I stand by it, that Utah is not that many pieces away from getting back to the NCAA Tournament, but to be clear, it needs to add pieces.

For the purposes of this exercise, two assumptions. We’re going to assume no one else leaves, meaning Lazar Stefanovic is essentially the only tangible loss, and we’re going to assume that Branden Carlson returns after testing the NBA draft waters.

I think Craig Smith and the staff checked off one box when they got a commitment from 7-foot-1 Colorado transfer Lawson Lovering over the weekend. Lovering was playing well down the stretch for the Buffaloes, and he represents the added size and physicality the Utes still need.

Beyond that, the No. 1 priority moving forward is more scoring. You need at least one guy out on the wing who can knock down a jumper consistently, which Utah simply did not have enough of. Yes, Gabe Madsen was that guy at times. Yes, maybe Wil Exacte turns into that, but the portal offers immediate help, and that’s what Utah needs, because if you get immediate help and fill some holes, you’re back in the NCAA Tournament next season.

Brass tacks: Assuming no one else leaves and Carlson comes back, I think they’re two guys away from breaking through. One of those two guys has to be able to shoot the ball/get you 16-18 per night.

Q: “If Carlson does come back, can he and Lovering co-exist on the floor at the same time? Maybe move BC to the 4?”

A: Great question, because it’s going to be a thing come fall.

We spent a lot of time last season discussing what a potential Carlson-Keba Keita frontcourt would look like. Craig Smith said a number of times that they were working on it in practice, but we almost never saw it, I suspect partially because you were giving up a lot, probably too much defensively.

Remember, if you’re going to have your big lineup out there, someone has to be able to potentially roam out to the perimeter to guard an athletic power forward or a stretch-4. Carlson, specifically, has been nothing but a center throughout high school and college, and I can’t imagine Lovering has done much else in his career.

If we’re talking specifically about a Carlson-Lovering lineup, well, honestly, I look forward to seeing what Smith comes up with, because you can’t have two rim-to-rim 7-footers at your disposal and not at least experiment with both of them on the floor.

For what it’s worth, Carlson is far and away the more seasoned, more capable player between the two, so if you’re getting one of them ready to step outside the comfort zone, I think it’s Carlson, but that’s merely an educated guess.

What’s the old saying? You can’t teach size? Well, Smith all of a sudden has a ton of it.

Q: “OK, here’s a heavy one for ya. Should the NCAA investigate Kim Mulkey for her bright pink arm flair during the Utah game?” - @poergS

A: The NCAA should be investigating Mulkey, specifically for having too much swag and making the rest of her peers look bad by comparison.

The thing with Mulkey’s wardrobe is, if you’re going to dress loudly, if not garishly, you have to win. You can’t wear leopard prints, fur, and leather pants if you’re playing .500 ball. No, you have to win and you have to win at an elite clip. Mulkey does, so she can wear whatever she wants.

Personally, I hope she shows up to the Final Four wearing a sleepsack. If LSU plays in the national championship game on Sunday, I don’t know why the first thing that came to mind was a purple pantsuit, but OK, we’re going with it.

Q: “Utah men’s basketball hasn’t been to the postseason in five years now. Who should get most of the blame?” - @utahfootballgm

A: Not for nothing, but if the pandemic doesn’t happen, the 2019-20 team is probably going to end up getting an NIT spot. That would not have appeased anyone at that point in Larry Krystkowiak’s tenure, but in fairness, we need to acknowledge that.

There are people that want to pin most, if not all of where Utah currently is on Craig Smith, but I think that’s tough to do. He had the four-best players off Krystkowiak’s last team in 2020-21 leave pretty much as he walked in the door, and was left to cobble together a roster.

Krystkowiak and staff had a silly amount of guys transfer out, and recruiting appeared to crater near the end, so that’s part of this current situation, but as time passes, and Smith has more control of the roster, and Krystkowiak-era guys cycle out, all of this is going to belong to Smith. The only Krystkowiak-era guy on the 2023-24 roster is Branden Carlson, and that’s only if he chooses to return.

I’m rambling here, but it’s almost impossible that Utah played its way out of the NIT earlier this month because that was a near-lock. All you had to do was not lose-out, and the Utes managed to do just that. That said, I maintain that Utah took positive steps forward, but now something has to get done.

In year three under Smith, with the transfer portal there to help, Utah needs to go to the postseason.

Q: “Will the NCAA ever adopt the women’s game format (4 10-minute quarters) and advancing the ball after a timeout for the men? Should they?” - @billyhesterman

A: I don’t really have an opinion on four quarters vs. two halves, other than from a fan/media perspective, I like that the women only have one media timeout per quarter vs. four media timeouts per half in the men’s game. One media timeout per quarter makes for a better flow in my opinion. Ultimately, though, whatever.

As far as advancing the ball after a timeout, crumple the piece of paper that idea was initially drafted on and fire it into the sun. A timeout is called and you are allowed to move the ball forward 47 feet, without time coming off the clock, without defense being played.

That rule exists in the NBA and FIBA, and it stinks there, too.

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