University of Utah women’s basketball team wants you to get ready for a deep postseason run

Utah is ranked No. 5 in the country and looking to end its season in Cleveland for the Final Four

(David Becker | AP) Utah coach Lynne Roberts applauds during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Washington State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 women's tournament March 2, 2023, in Las Vegas.

For the preseason No. 5 team in the country, the expectations are clear this year: Get to the program’s first Final Four.

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts has assembled her deepest roster in her ninth season in Salt Lake City. Not only did the Utes return all five starters, but they also added several marquee transfers and the South Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year.

It was reasonable to believe last year’s Utah team could have made the Final Four. It took the eventual champion LSU down to the wire in the Sweet 16. But with another talent upgrade, just going toe-to-toe with the best won’t be enough this season. Now, anything less than an Elite Eight would be a disappointment.

Reinforcements here to help

Utah had plenty of playmakers on its roster last season. Alissa Pili (a preseason All-American honorable mention) and Gianna Kneepkens (a Pac-12 all-conference selection) were the headliners. Both averaged over 15 points per game.

But it was an offense that featured several players who could get 15-to-20 points on a given night. Jenna Johnson could score in a multitude of ways, including spacing the floor with a three. Kennady McQueen and Issy Palmer were also good scoring options in the backcourt when needed.

But even for all the front-line weapons Roberts had, the one thing Utah needed more of was depth. It showed at the end of last season when Palmer, McQueen and Kneepkins were dealing with injuries.

So, Roberts went into the portal and added more to her roster. Former Wisconsin guard Maty Wilke joined the fold after averaging over 33 minutes a night in the Big Ten. She has the qualities to be a Pac-12 starter. For now, her role is more ambiguous as Roberts works out her rotations.

Utah also brought in Sam Crispe, who played in 33 games at Boston University. She will help the front-court depth that was tested at times last year. She’ll add to the pairing of Pili and Johnson. Dasia Young and freshman Reese Ross also figure to be factors there.

Roberts believes the added depth will help Utah out defensively, too. The Utes improved a year ago from the 220th-ranked defense, but it showed its cracks down the stretch.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) pumps her fist after making an improbable diving shot while being fouled as Utah hosts Princeton, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

Defense wins championships (or gets you to the Final Four)

Speaking of defense, that is the one area where Utah really needed to improve to get to a Final Four.

Everyone knows Roberts’ team can score. It was top five in the country last year in points (82.8), assists (18.3) and field goal percentage (48%). But it was defensively where Utah is not quite elite.

Roberts changed the defensive scheme a year ago that spurred the jump from the 200s to 91st in the country. But a Final Four team tends to be in the top 50.

“That is what we were going for and I think that is doable,” Roberts said. “I thought we were defending well and I think we ran out of depth last year. And we added to that.”

Theoretically, the second year in a new defensive scheme should help.

Also, the one thing Utah has lacked in the past is size. Roberts has tried to navigate around that. But this year, she does have some size to lean back on.

Néné Sow is coming off her redshirt season and is 6-foot-8. Crispe is 6-foot-2. Ross is 6-foot-1. Sow is still a raw talent, but might be good in spots to give Utah a boost in size.

Roberts will also return some of her better defensive players from a year ago. Backup guard Inês Vieira is someone who can shadow another team’s main ball handler 94 feet. Young also comes back as a senior. And Lani White, who gave Utah good minutes in the NCAA Tournament last year, is a sophomore.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Lani White (3) celebrates as Utah hosts Princeton, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

An added luxury on the glass

Another place where Utah could have improved this offseason is rebounding. Pili was a good rebounder and Johnson averaged close to five per game. But other than that, the Utes lacked a true rebounding force.

Now, Utah can lean on Ross. It was only an exhibition game, but she had a double-double against Northwest Nazarene that included seven offensive rebounds. Roberts changed her position to be more of a four that can trail and hit a three. She also rebounds well out of that spot.

Plus, Crispe should be able to help there, too. Young might not be a traditional rebounder, but her effort can generate a few more possessions a game for an offense (and create some easy second-chance threes for Kneepkens, McQueen and Palmer).

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Jenna Johnson (22) defended by Princeton Tigers guard Grace Stone (10) as Utah hosts Princeton, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

A crowded guard room

The flip side of the added depth is how the minutes will be distributed, particularly in the backcourt.

Kneepkens, Palmer and McQueen return as starters from last year. Plus, Viera and White were good role pieces.

Now, though, Utah has Wilke. That is six guards for three spots.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) takes the ball inside, as California Golden Bears guard Karisma Ortiz (4) defends, in PAC-12 women's basketball action between Utah Utes and California Golden Bears, at the Jon M. Jon M. Huntsman Center, Thursday, February. 23, 2022.

It is a nice luxury to have, but all six are at different points in their career. White is a sophomore who showed flashes of being a starter-level guard. Wilke was a starter and could start today. Viera once started, too, and is now coming off the bench to give Utah a strong defensive presence.

It will be interesting to see how Roberts mixes and matches this group.

The frontcourt has the same issue, but it feels like Pili and Johnson are solid bets to anchor that group. Young should play significant time, and Crispe and Ross will be solid additions. The wildcard might be Sow and how ready she is to contribute to a Final Four-caliber group.

Kneepkens and Pili carrying the day

With the amount of depth Utah has, Roberts won’t have to rely on Kneepkens or Pili to be 25-points-per-night type players.

“We’re not a one-, two-headed monster. A number of kids can score 25 on a given night,” Roberts said.

Still, though, there is no doubt who the best two players on this team are.

For Utah to get to where it wants, Kneepkens and Pili will have to be the All-American type of players they are projected to be.

Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) dribbles the basketball during an NCAA basketball game on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate)

Kneepkens is going into her third season after starting 57 games her freshman and sophomore years. She nearly had a 50/40/90 season last year. It almost went under the radar because of Pili.

And for Pili, this is her last go-round. Her first season with Utah, after transferring from USC, was a success (averaging over 20 points a night). This year everyone will be keyed in on her. What can she do for an encore?

Projected starting lineup

G Issy Palmer (Sr.)

G. Kennady McQueen (Jr.)

G Gianna Kneepkens (Jr.)

F Jenna Johnson (Jr.)

F Alissa Pili (Sr.)

Key players: Mady Wilke (Soph.), Dasia Young (Sr.), Ines Vieira (Sr.), Reese Ross (Fr.), Sam Crispe (Soph.), Lani White (Soph.)

Key dates

at Baylor Nov. 14

vs. BYU Dec. 2

vs. South Carolina Dec. 10 (in Connecticut)

vs. Stanford Jan. 12

vs. UCLA Jan 22

vs. Colorado Feb 12

at UCLA Feb. 22