Utes out to prove themselves

Michelle Plouffe is shooting 46 percent on 3-pointers and averaging a team-high 17.4 ppg. AP Photo/Jim Urquhart

Coach Anthony Levrets rattles off the list of ailments endured by his Utah team last season with a rote intonation that suggests he has done it too many times already: brain tumor, disease in the knee, torn PCL, ruptured Achilles, torn ACL, rotator cuff and a major ankle sprain. Deep breath.

"It was hard, there's no getting around it," Levrets said. "It's one of those things you can't prepare for. Every time we felt like we adjusted to losing somebody, we'd lose somebody else."

Flash forward a year and Levrets has lost that helpless feeling. The Utes, however, haven't lost a thing so far.

Utah is a healthy 7-0 this season, the program's best start since 2000-01. The Utes have wins over Michigan and Hawaii heading into Saturday's game against in-state rival BYU and are pointing toward the Pac-12 schedule in a few short weeks.

It will be the second go-round in a new conference and the Utes' true first opportunity to prove that they are again the national power that they were under former coach Elaine Elliott all those years.

The conference has yet to be convinced. Utah was picked seventh in the league's preseason poll after finishing a disappointing 8-10 (16-16 overall) in its debut Pac-12 season.

"We were not able to find out where we were a year ago," said Levrets, in his third season. "We couldn't find out whether we were good enough to compete because of all the injuries. Realistically, we were as good as we could be. But we didn't know where we stood. This feels like a fresh start."

A fresh start with an experienced, hungry team determined to live up to Utah's legacy as one of the nation's most consistent programs. Utah came into the Pac-12 last season as the eighth-winningest program in women's college basketball, with 22 conference titles and 17 trips to the NCAA tournament.

Utah wanted to come into a new conference and impress, not be a lower-half-of-the-standings team. That impressive impression might just be a year delayed.

Utah returns four starters from last year's team, including posts Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski, who are both averaging about 17 points and combining for nearly 15 rebounds per game. Senior wing Rachel Messer came into this season with 66 starts. Iwalani Rodrigues, the team's most experienced player as a fifth-year senior, is back to bombing from beyond the arc, and freshman Danielle Rodriguez is learning the ropes at the point, but handling the job ably so far (22 assists to only five turnovers).

It's this combination of players that Levrets believes can return Utah to the NCAA tournament and get the Utes hanging at the top of the Pac-12 standings with Stanford, Cal and UCLA.

The Pac-12 would welcome that. The West Coast's standard-bearing conference has been thin in the NCAA field over the past few years -- the Pac-12 hasn't sent more than three teams to the NCAA tournament since 2007 -- and would love to shore up the postseason ranks with another worthy NCAA team that isn't teetering on the bubble at the end of the season.

Utah just wants to prove that it belongs.

"I think we are playing with a chip on our shoulder," Plouffe said. "We expect a lot of ourselves. Last year, we didn't get to show the team we were, and we are ready to show everyone what we are about."

Wicijowski said the Utes' seventh-place league selection isn't important to her or her teammates.

"We got picked fourth in the Mountain West and that didn't stop us from winning the tournament," Wicijowski said. "I don't feel like we are a seventh-place team and that's a good motivator for us."

Plouffe, leading the Utes at 17.4 points per game, spent her summer with the Canadian Olympic team in London. Her minutes were spare, but the wisdom and experience she gleaned from her veteran teammates were invaluable.

"I'm definitely feeling more calm and poised," Plouffe said. "I feel like my mental game has improved a lot."

Wicijowski played well last season, but she was still recovering from the ACL injury she'd sustained the previous season and was not in top condition.

"I spent a lot of time this summer getting back into good shape and working on my shooting," she said. "It's starting to show. I know I have to play 100 percent on both ends of the floor. I wanted to expand my game."

So far, so good. Wicijowski was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week this week after her career-best 26 points against Hawaii. She currently ranks second in Division I in shooting percentage (66.7).

And Utah has the look of a real threat to the top teams in the Pac-12.

"We believe we have a good enough team to get into the NCAA tournament," Levrets said. "This program is used to being there and it's really important for us to achieve that. The players who came here expect it."