After rebuilding season, team ready to contend in Pac-12.
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Dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, Utah women's basketball coach Anthony Levrets headed to practice earlier this week with an air of confidence he's rarely had in the last three years.
If his team stays healthy and that's been a challenge in the past the Utes likely possess the talent and finally the experience to make noise and possibly make their first NCAA Tournament in two years. There is more depth than previous seasons. A touted recruiting class is in place to complement the veterans.
"We have been so young in the last few years," Levrets said. "We think that we have a nice balance now, and it's welcome. We have depth and we have the ability to mix and match. That's something we haven't had in quite a while."
Utah returns four starters. Michelle Plouffe is fresh off her summer Olympic experience of playing for Canada. The 6-foot-4 junior projects as one of the best power forwards in the Pac-12. In the paint, Taryn Wicijowski is finally fully healthy from the ACL she tore two years ago. She's 30 pounds lighter, more nimble in the post and poised to make a big impact.
Rachel Messer offers shooting and intangibles on the perimeter, while Iwalani Rodrigues is a three-year starter at shooting guard, a fifth-year senior and is the single most experienced player on the roster.
Those four all do different things, which Levrets hopes will make his offense more versatile and dynamic. As a group, they've been through almost every situation imaginable, and that breeds chemistry on the court.
"We gained a lot from playing in the Pac-12 last season," Plouffe said. "We realized that we were no longer playing in the Mountain West Conference, where some games we would win no matter how we're playing.
"We realize that teams are good in the Pac-12 every night. So we have to adjust and play that way."
Even with the depth and the experience, Utah's biggest question comes at its most important position. Danielle Rodriguez, a 5-foot-10 freshman, takes over at point guard for Janita Badon, who was a four-year starter.
Her maturation and ability to handle the position will be a key to the season. She was highly recruited and Levrets feels she has the mentality to step in right away.
"She comes from a great high school program," Levrets said. "She also is stepping into a veteran lineup. It's not like she's passing to other freshmen. She has people who will help her along the way."
Saturday • At Denver, 4 p.m.
Nov. 13 • vs. Southern Utah, 7 p.m.
Nov. 16 • vs. Michigan, 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 20 • vs. Northern Colorado, 7 p.m.
Nov. 24 • At Weber State, 2 p.m.
Nov. 27 • vs. Utah State, 7 p.m.
Dec. 1 • At Hawaii, 2 p.m.
Dec. 8 • vs. BYU, 3 p.m.
Dec. 15 • vs. Houston Baptist, 7 p.m.
Dec. 20 • vs. UC Irvine, 7 p.m.
Dec. 29 • vs. North Dakota, 3 p.m.
Jan. 4 • vs. California, 6 p.m.
Jan. 6 • vs. Stanford, 2 p.m.
Jan. 8 • at Colorado, 6 p.m.
Jan. 13 • vs. Colorado, 3 p.m.
Jan. 18 • vs. Arizona, 7 p.m.
Jan. 20 • vs. Arizona St., 3 p.m.
Jan. 25 • at Stanford, 7 p.m.
Jan. 27 • at California, 2 p.m.
Feb. 1 • at USC, 7 p.m.
Feb. 3 • at UCLA, 2 p.m.
Feb. 8 • vs. Oregon, 7 p.m.
Feb. 10 • vs. Oregon St., 1 p.m.
Feb. 15 • at Arizona St., 5 p.m.
Feb. 17 • at Arizona, 5 p.m.
Feb. 22 • vs. Washington, 7 p.m.
Feb. 24 • vs. Washington State, 3 p.m.
March 1 • at Oregon St., 7 p.m.
March 3 • at Oregon, 12 p.m.
March 7 • Pac-12 Tournament