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SALT LAKE CITY — Being a member of the Pac-12 has not been an easy adjustment for Utah women's basketball since joining the league almost a decade ago, and it won't be getting any easier in the 2021-22 season.
The conference is home to the 2021 NCAA women's basketball champions and runners up in Stanford and Arizona.
Coming off a 5-16 (4-15 Pac-12) record from a season ago, Utah head coach Lynne Roberts is not shy in saying it was a "bad year."
"In my 20 years as a head coach, it was the worst year I've had in terms of wins and losses," said Roberts, who is now in her seventh year at Utah, during Pac-12 media day Tuesday. "Sometimes that forces you to … look at what you're doing, how you're doing it. And so that's what I did."
After the completion of last season, Roberts said she reevaluated everything: the staff, how she leads, who they recruit, the teams' deficiencies, the team's strengths, among a long list of many other things influencing the team.
The consensus after the reevaluation process: an immediate rebranding.
"We've changed a lot of things," Roberts said. "And I'm not changing who I am or how I coach but in terms of what we're doing. We've rebranded the whole gym, we've done a lot of things differently; and I'm as excited as I can remember ever being."
Utah finished the 2020-21 season ranked 10th in one of the most competitive conferences for women's basketball, and it simply wasn't good enough for Roberts. She knew it, her staff knew it and the players all knew it; and they all knew there needed to be change. They needed to be different.
"There's a lot of talk last year as a team that we wanted to change things and wanted to do things," sophomore guard Kemery Martín said. "We talked about it a lot, but it's one thing to talk about it and one thing to do."
One word the Utes will live by this season is "divergent," a word picked by the staff to implement change as part of the rebranding.
Martín said the word is about "being different," and that's what they want to be this year.
Two areas the team will look to be different and improve in is increasing rebounds and limiting turnovers. Already, an emphasis has been placed by Roberts and her staff on those statistics that crushed the team last year. By the end of season, they were ranked 10th in rebounding offense (35.5%), 11th in rebounding defense (37.3%) and 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.62).
The Utes also ranked last in the conference in scoring defense, giving up just over 70 points per game.
"One of the main things I noticed in terms of statistically, the analytics of it, was the biggest difference between the teams in our league that consistently finish in the top one, two, three and where we have been really falling short in a few statistical areas, and it's rebounding, and then we turn the ball over too much," Roberts said.
"It's not just as simple as that, there's a lot of nuance and variables to that and different things that we're working on. But that's a massive focus in our practices and in our training."
For the upcoming season, Utah has 13 players on their current roster: six freshman, four sophomores, one junior, and two seniors (The NCAA granted athletes a COVID year, which complicated things because a majority of the players are a year ahead academically but remain the same year from last season, making the Utes look younger than they truly are).
"We've changed a lot of things. And I'm not changing who I am or how I coach but in terms of what we're doing. We've rebranded the whole gym, we've done a lot of things differently; and I'm as excited as I can remember ever being."
But for as young and inexperienced as the team looks on paper, they have top contributors returning who are looking to make more of an impact on the team and conference. The Utes return the teams' three top scorers in sophomores Brynna Maxwell and Martín, along with junior Dru Gylten.
Maxwell ranked second in Division I with a 92.4% free throw percentage and had a game high 34 points, which was the most by a Pac-12 player during the season. Martín, a Sandy native who earned the titles of Ms. Basketball and Utah Gatorade Player of the Year while at Corner Canyon, averaged 11.1 points per game and earned Pac-12 All Conference honorable mention.
Gylten, who only played 15 of the teams' 21 total games last year before being sidelined with a season-ending injury, averaged 8.1 points per game and is said by Roberts to be healthy "for the first time in a while." The South Dakota native through her 15 games played last season led the Pac-12 in assists and assists per game, so the Utes took a tremendous hit by not having their "engine" available to play toward the end of the season.
As part of Roberts' analysis and evaluation of last season, she asked herself what her team was missing and what they were needing. The answer? Athleticism and speed.
"We knew we had some great skill players and could shoot it, but we needed some more athleticism and speed and defense," Roberts said.
To help in these areas, Utah added senior guard and Texas Tech transfer Maka Jackson, who shot 50% from the field last year; and sophomore forward and UT Martin transfer Dasia Young, who earned first team All-OVC honors during the 2020-21 season.
The Utes also added three freshmen: guard Inês Vieira, who played on the Portugal national team; 3,000-point high school scorer from Minnesota and guard Gianna Kneepkens; and the No. 7-ranked forward prospect from the 2021 class, Jenna Johnson.
Martín said Tuesday the team is "all in" on Roberts' plan, the rebranding of the team, and for a chance to redeem themselves from a disappointing season that caused them to be voted 10th in the coaches 2021-22 preseason poll.
"Sometimes you gotta really kind of fail to kind of have a new vibe and a new look, but I'm confident," Roberts said. "I know what we're doing, I know where we're heading, I know how good this league is, and I'm reveling in the idea of being the underdog. I love it."