No. 5 Utah has risen from underdog to top contender in the Pac-12 heading into new season

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah has completed a journey from underdog to top contender in the Pac-12 and now finds itself in the rare position of being a hunted team.

All five starters and several key reserves are back from a team that won a share of the regular-season conference title last season. Utah’s combination of experience and depth are why the Utes were picked to repeat as conference champions and received a No. 5 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25.

“Everyone is just so excited to get going,” junior guard Gianna Kneepkens said. “We know what it takes now to play deep into March, and we all want to be there. We’re all hungry. We all get in the gym more than we ever have.”

The transformation for Utah is reflected in scheduling. When Lynne Roberts left Pacific and took over as the Utes’ coach in 2015, teams called nonstop asking for games with the beleaguered program.

Now that Utah has carved out a spot among the nation’s top teams, getting anyone to answer the phone has turned into a chore.

"We’ve gotten to a point where nobody wants to play us,” Roberts said.

Building a program that other teams fear didn’t happen overnight. Roberts inherited a Utah program that went 21-40 in the two seasons before she arrived in Salt Lake City.

After winning just five games in the 2020-21 season, the Utes took a massive leap the following year and made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade. The Utes reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed last season before falling 66-63 to eventual national champion LSU.

“You have to bite off year by year,” Roberts said. “I tell the team all the time, ‘You can’t take the elevator. You have to take the stairs.’ The stairs are hard and you gotta work. I’ve been told ‘no’ a lot by recruits, and we’ve lost games and we’ve been embarrassed in some games at the beginning. It just takes persistence.”

Persistence paid off as Roberts assembled her current roster. Kennady McQueen debuted at Utah during its five-win campaign. Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson came in as freshmen two years ago. All three players became reliable scorers and quickly won starting roles.

The biggest recruiting coup came when Alissa Pili joined the Utes as a transfer from USC. Pili immediately elevated Utah to a conference title contender. She averaged 20.7 points on 59% shooting last season with 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

Pili’s dominance gave her teammates space to emerge. Kneepkens averaged 15.3 points while she and McQueen evolved into dangerous shooters on the perimeter. Johnson complemented Pili in the post with her rugged play, allowing the senior forward to step out and knock down outside shots as needed.

Buoyed by this collective talent, Utah overwhelmed one opponent after another with an explosive offense and a rugged defense. The Utes opened last season with 14 consecutive victories and finished with 27 wins — one shy of the school record set in 2000-01. Along the way, they led the Pac-12 with 82.8 points per game while holding opponents to a 66 point average.

“We already knew we were a really good team,” Pili said. “It was just part of proving ourselves to the nation and just putting ourselves on the map. Now that we’ve done that, we can just grow even more. Everybody on this team wants to get better.”

The spotlight will be shining bright on Utah this season, and the Utes will have opportunities to take advantage of that.

They face early tests against No. 19 Baylor and No. 6 South Carolina before plunging into Pac-12 play one last time, and will eventually be looking ahead to competing in the Big 12 Conference. They are eager to prove last season’s conference championship run was not a fluke.

"We don’t want to settle for anything less," Pili said, "than a national championship.”


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