Sibling act helps Utah prepare for Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Almost every college basketball program talks about promoting a sense of family within its ranks. Not many go to quite the extremes of the University of Utah, which arrived in Indiana for a first-round game against Purdue (Sunday, ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) with what surely ranks as one of the only brother-sister combinations in college hoops.

Sure, Candace Parker's older brother was once a star at Bradley. And Stanford's Candice Wiggins shared the Bay Area stage with her older brother for a couple of years when Alan Wiggins Jr. played at San Francisco. But siblings as part of the same team?

"I play a lot harder, because I don't want her to score on me or anything," Cole Warburton explained of going against sister Morgan.

A freshman team manager and occasional practice player for the Utes, Cole is also the younger brother of the team's junior leading scorer. The youngest of four sisters to play college basketball, Morgan leads Utah at 17.2 points per game, shoots nearly 43 percent on 3-pointers and pulls down better than five rebounds per game.

And anyone who questions the toughness of a team from the Mountain West, especially one that lost to 3-28 Colorado State team in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, might want to consider the family feud sometimes played out at practice.

"He takes it at me a little bit more, because we're a little bit competitive," Morgan said of Cole. "But it's good, because I need to go against somebody that wants to defend. It's a good matchup for me, because we know each other's games and he works me pretty hard."

That started in the backyard of the family home in Utah, where John and Stacy Warburton built a basketball court for their children. The Warburton progenitors first met while playing basketball in college and their backyard basket quickly became the central hub of neighborhood sports. The closest to each other in age among the siblings, Cole and Morgan often matched up against each other in those pick-up games. Now several inches shorter than her lanky brother, Morgan made the most of her head start in life.

"When we were younger, I kind of took it at him a little, just being older," Morgan admitted. "But now I don't stand a chance with him. He's a great player. He didn't go on and play [in college], but he's helped our team this year just being able to go against him. It's just fun. It's good to see him every day. People would think you might get annoyed with it, brother and sister, but it's not like that with me and Cole."

Utah needed every bit of Morgan's collected basketball experience last season when it asked the natural scorer to play point guard with no other replacement available after Shona Thorburn's graduation. Not only starting on a regular basis for the first time, but doing it while running an offense that lost two all-time pieces in Thorburn and Kim Smith, Morgan led the team in points and assists. But she also struggled with turnovers and watched as the Utes went 19-14 and missed the NCAA tournament for only the fourth time since 1995.

With former Idaho star Leilani Mitchell eligible this season after sitting out as a transfer last season, Morgan is back on familiar ground on the wing and thriving.

"It's just been awesome for me," Morgan said. "Last year, I kind of had some pressure on me. I'm not a point guard -- I thought I did pretty well, but not good enough to get our team where we need to be. And it's just good to know that I'm on the position that I'm supposed to play and to know that all the pressure isn't on me necessarily, like we all share it now."

They also all share the questions hanging over their heads after the loss to Colorado State, a team that went 0-16 in conference play and scored just 28 points in a loss at Utah in February. Almost lost in the aftermath of that upset was Utah's perfect regular season in a league that sent three teams to the NCAA tournament and had a fourth on the bubble. Projected as high as No. 3 or No. 4 seed some places before the conference tournament, Utah found itself seeded eighth and facing a potential game against No. 1 Tennessee in the second round -- if the Utes can even get by Purdue on the latter's home court.

All of that for a team that faced plenty of questions entering the season after a rash of transfers left Elliott with Morgan, Kalee Whipple, four-year starter Jessica Perry and nobody else who averaged more than 12 minutes per game from last season's rotation.

In other words, these Utes are used to hearing whispers of dissent.

"You know, you can't really listen to what people say, but it's also a motivation factor, too, for people on the team," Morgan said. "It's hard, but at the same time I think people will know -- I think we're ready to play. We've waited 11 days to get a game going. Purdue is a way good team and their atmosphere and the crowd and everything is going to be difficult, but if we do what we know we need to do, I think it will turn out well for us."

What they need to do is play their game. Utah held opponents to 35 percent shooting and an average of 53.6 points per game. And as Purdue's Kalika France put it in Saturday's news conference, the Boilers are at their best when they can get out and run.

To get its shot at Tennessee, Utah will have to play like a family, with all that entails.

"I was kind of nervous at first," Cole said of taking on managerial duties for his sister's team. "I asked her if she would care very much, and she said it wouldn't be that big a deal to her; it would be nice to have a family member there and kind of support her a little bit and have somebody around with her."

Family can get you through a lot of things, when it isn't busy trying to kick your butt in practice.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.