Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Utah makes headlines, Guard play at its finest

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Nonchalant. The word that Utah coach Lynne Roberts used to describe the reaction to her team following one of the biggest weekends in program history.

“Yeah, they were pretty even keel about the whole thing,” Roberts said. “I was pretty excited.”

Let’s recapture the last several heady days for Utah. The Utes entered the AP top 25 rankings for the first time since 2008 last week, coming in at No. 21 with a one-loss record and facing a big home weekend against Cal and sixth-ranked Stanford.

The Utes defeated Cal on Friday night and then followed up with a 75-68  upset win over the Cardinal that marked the Utah program’s first-ever win over the West Coast powerhouse.

“It was pretty special,” Roberts said. “It’s like what I told the team, the way we should feel about it is based on who Stanford is and how amazing they are.”

The Utes (18-1, 7-1) moved up to No. 14 in the AP poll this week, the third highest-ranking in program history, and the highest since Utah was ranked No. 12 in the 2007-08 season. Utah ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring (76.9) and third in scoring defense (59.2 ppg).

But if the Utes seem a little blase with all of this, that’s OK with the head coach. She said the team went into last weekend with “no sense of nerves.” She describes a team without an “alpha” player, an atmosphere in which the young players have been allowed to thrive and lead.

“They are pretty confident, but with a humility to them,” Roberts said. “It’s not an arrogance, but a fearlessness. It doesn’t matter who they are playing, they seem to have the same mentality. They are unflappable in a really good way.”

What comes next will further test the Utes’ ability to play it cool, a road trip to face No. 5 Oregon and No. 9 Oregon State in two of the toughest gyms in the country.

“The message is going to be the same as it was last weekend. The worst case scenario is we lose and we learn something. Or we win and we gain confidence,” Roberts said. “Does it mean anything that we beat Cal and Stanford, sure it does. Does it change anything? No. We are the underdogs and we are going to keep wearing that hat.”

Guarding the fort

The year of the guard in the Pac-12 continues.

Backcourt excellence has been the hallmark of this 2018-19 with many teams being driven by the top-notch play of their guards. Statisically, the proof is in the numbers.

Arizona’s Aari McDonald ranks No. 2 in the nation in scoring at 25.2 points a game. Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu ranks No. 1 in assists-per-game at 8.4 per game, joined in the top 10 by Colorado’s Kennedy Leonard (6th) and Utah’s Dru Glyten (10th).

Five Pac-12 guards ranks among the top 20 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio: Arizona State’s Reili Richardson (No. 3 at 3.6), Oregon’s Maite Carzola (6th/3.3), Ionescu (8th/3.2), USC’s Minyon Moore (9th/3.16) and Oregon State’s Aleah Goodman (17th/2.71).

At Oregon, in the middle of a record-setting season, Ionescu and Carzola have both surpassed the school’s assist record this season.

Meanwhile, players such as Oregon State’s Destiny Slocum, who has put up at least 20 points in four of Oregon State’s last seven games, Washington’s leading scorer Amber Melgoza and UCLA’s Japreece Dean, who has a career-high 26 points in Sunday’s triple-overtime win over Arizona and has a run of 32 straight made-free throws, are setting the pace for their teams.

“Yeah, for sure, there are some great guards in this conference,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, who thinks that McDonald is emerging as one of the best. “Sabrina and Aari are two the best in the country. Dean is having a great year. I think (Oregon State’s) Mikayla Pivec is a really underrated player. She does a lot of things for them. Slocum is a great player. Even though USC is struggling, Minyon is a worker and they have a great backcourt with her and Aliyah Mazyck. You are going to face a really good guard in this league every game you play.”

Handicapping the Player of the Year race

While Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, the nation’s assist leader and the NCAA record-holder in triple-doubles, is currently positioned as the front-runner for Player of the Year honors, she has some competition.

Cal’s Kristine Anigwe is having a monster statistical season, the only player in the nation to collect a double-double in every game she’s played in this season. But the Bears will likely need a second-half rally toward the top of the league standings for Anigwe to nab the honor.

Stanford’s Alanna Smith has taken her game to a new level for the Cardinal.

Arizona’s Aari McDonald is the conference’s breakout player this season, leading the league in scoring, but the Wildcats would also need to pick up a bunch of second half wins to bolster her candidacy for the Pac-12’s top individual award.

And Utah’s Megan Huff is making her own case, ranking fifth in the league in scoring and second in rebounding heading into the weekend set against the Oregon schools.

“Megan has shown that she is in the same category as many of these players and she hasn’t been mentioned, but I think she is showing that she can go toe-to-toe with the players who have been mentioned among the elite in the conference,” Roberts said.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.