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When setting goals for her team this season, coach Lynne Roberts was careful to not assign win totals to those benchmarks.

How does she feel about being 8-3 so far in her first season leading the Utes — only one victory away from last season's total?

She creases into a smile: "Cautiously optimistic."

The Utes appear ahead of schedule, grinding out a number of close non-conference victories, including a 7-0 record at home.

The optimism stems from having one of the best rebounding teams in the country, with a plus-11 average margin. It stems from having a top-35 shooting team (44.6 percent) and a top-100 offense (70.6 points per game).

The Utes also can safely boast having one of the top centers in the conference in Emily Potter, who is among the Pac-12's top five scorers (18.1 ppg) and rebounders (12.1 rpg).

But caution reigns as Utah enters league play: Utah has only combined seven league wins in the past two seasons. Roberts was hired to turn that around.

It will be no easy task: Five Pac-12 programs are ranked nationally this week. But buzzing with energy from a better-than-expected non-conference season, the Utes are eager to find out what damage they can do.

"I'm really proud at how we've bought in," Potter said. "I want to keep getting better every week. I want to get as many wins as possible."

Buy-in is always a big question mark for new coaches: Blending the old personnel into a new system is typically a tricky process.

But players back from injury have helped smooth the transition: Four of Utah's top six scorers are players who missed most or all of last season, paced by 6-foot-6 Potter. The commitment to rebounding has helped: Utah has won on the boards in all 11 games, and Potter provides easy clean-up, shooting 59 percent from the floor.

But the Utes also recognize the Pac-12 is a different animal from the teams they've faced so far. Arguably their toughest three foes — Oklahoma, Boston College and BYU — beat them by double digits. The conference's best teams will be more among that caliber. Areas where Utah struggles, particularly in turnovers and 3-point shooting, could hurt them.

Roberts knows better than to expect to rattle off big winning streaks (although she'd welcome them), and is setting the bar at trying to play "tougher" than each opponent.

"When you're building, you don't get in the elevator and go straight to the penthouse," she said. "It takes time. We are building. We are going to face some adversity, that's part of it. They've bought in, the chemistry's good. They have to stick with it."

Pac-12 play begins at the Huntsman Center with Washington State on Saturday, followed by Washington on Monday, and both teams have nine wins. Utah hopes to assert itself early, carrying over the momentum from non-conference and perhaps surprise the coaches and media who picked them to finish 11th in the conference.

They're cautious, true. But the optimism is starting to surface as well.

"That ranking kind of lights a fire from within," senior Katie Kuklok said. "We've got to go prove people wrong."

Twitter: @kylegoon —

Washington State at Utah

P At the Jon M. Huntsman Center

Tipoff • 5 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Network

Radio • 700 AM

Records • Washington State 9-3; Utah 8-3