Utah catching up in Pac-12

AP Photo/Jim Urquhart

Coach Anthony Levrets' Utes are in seventh place in the Pac-12 but are undefeated the second time around in conference play.

The adjective Utah coach Anthony Levrets uses to describe his team's first season as a member of the Pac-12 would seem to be picked out of the "obvious" pile.

"It's been different," Levrets said. "I knew it was going to be a challenge, but it's a different challenge than what I thought."

This is the first season in which the effects of conference realignments have begun to take hold.

Nebraska moved to the Big Ten and quickly asserted itself as one of the league's top teams, and currently sits third in the standings.

BYU took up residence in the West Coast Conference and challenged Gonzaga's dominance, positioning itself for a run at the conference title.

Meanwhile, in the Pac-12, Utah and Colorado have not been able to shake up the top half of the standings in their new home.

Utah sits in seventh place at 6-8 and 13-12 overall. Colorado, after an 11-0 start to the season, is in 10th at 5-9 (16-9 overall).

Still, Levrets likes where his team is. The Utes have wins over Arizona State, USC and Colorado. They are 3-0 when playing teams a second time in the conference. Injuries have limited what he thought could have been a stronger showing.

"We lost three of the top eight kids for the year," Levrets said. "Had we not lost those kids, we'd be in a significantly different place than we are right now. We have gotten way better the second time through the conference."

Levrets said he thought the most difficult challenge for his team, coming out of the Mountain West, was going to be the size of the post players in the Pac-12.

"I remember seeing a lot of big bodies. But it's the depth of guards in this league," Levrets said. "The athleticism of the perimeter players -- every team has two, three, four kids who can all put the ball on the floor. ... It's very different than the Mountain West, which is very system-oriented. Having to guard off the dribble, that's been a huge difference."

Levrets' team is about to embark on the toughest trip of its conference schedule, traveling to Cal and No. 2 Stanford. Visiting new places is fun. Facing new teams without a lot of history behind your game-planning? Not as much.

"In the Mountain West, we played Wednesday and Saturday, so it was two days of prep and a game and two days of prep and a game," Levrets said. "This is a Thursday-Saturday schedule, and it's such a different feel, the grind of it. You see somebody on film, but it's not the same."

Five on the marquee

Connecticut. A 99-game home winning streak came to an end Saturday at the hands of St. John's. The Huskies are struggling to hit shots from the perimeter, but they got their mojo back against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, winning 86-37 and hitting 61.4 percent from the floor.

Tara VanDerveer. There have been many milestones for the Stanford coach in the past year, including her 800th career victory and induction into the Hall of Fame. And now, this weekend, should her team sweep Utah and Colorado, VanDerveer will win her 700th game at Stanford.

Penn State. The Lions own at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 2004 after decisively defeating Ohio State 84-66 on Monday. That's a lift for a campus that could use it.

Shekinna Stricklen, Tennessee. The Vols' senior forward led the way in three wins last week, including a big victory over Kentucky. She had 18 points against the Wildcats, then posted 22 points and 12 rebounds against Mississippi State, moving past 1,700 points and 800 career rebounds.

Tianna Hawkins, Maryland. It was a huge week for the Terps' junior forward. She scored 19 points and pulled down nine rebounds in Sunday's big win over Duke, doing all of her damage in the second half. Against Virginia last Thursday, she scored a career-high 26 points. For the week, she shot 77 percent from the field. She leads the nation in field goal percentage at 65 percent.

Five with a surprise

Auburn. Former U.S. Olympic team coach Nell Fortner, in her eighth year at Auburn, announced she is resigning at the end of the season. The Tigers are 3-11 in the SEC this year and have lost five straight. Auburn last won the SEC title in 2008-09.

San Francisco. The Dons have been mired in the cellar of the West Coast Conference for a long time, and former Stanford All-American Jennifer Azzi took the job two years ago to pull them out. Suddenly, there are signs. In late January, USF beat St. Mary's for the first time since 2008. And last week, the Dons shook up the conference race with a 71-64 upset over BYU (No. 23 AP) in Provo, the program's first win over a ranked team since 2003.

Alabama. The Crimson Tide has just two victories in conference play, so pulling off a 77-75 win over first-place Kentucky ranks as the biggest upset in the SEC this year. It was Alabama's first win over a top-10 opponent since 2000.

Drexel. The 13-12 Dragons took No. 10 Delaware to the brink of a loss on Sunday, falling 40-39 on a game-winning shot by star Elena Delle Donne with 2.3 seconds to go. But it was a stellar defensive effort, as Delle Donne finished with 12 points, her lowest-scoring output of the season. It was just the second time in her college career she'd scored less than 20.

Nebraska. The Huskers had been rolling, reeling off four straight wins and climbing to No. 16 in the national rankings and within sight of a Big Ten title. And then came losses to Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern, the latter two to teams with losing records in conference play. Nebraska cost itself a shot at the Big Ten title but is hoping to gain momentum after a win over Wisconsin on Sunday. It closes the regular season with games at Michigan State and home against Ohio State.

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