February 25, 2022
How the top offense in the Pac-12 has Utah on the precipice of history
There have been fireworks coming from Salt Lake City this season
With 8:34 remaining in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Utah junior guard Brynna Maxwell hit an and-1 jump shot to give Utah a 10-point lead on the road at UCLA. Her head coach, Lynne Roberts, pumped both fists in excitement and screamed at the top of her lungs. The Utes would end up defeating the Bruins by a final score of 75-70, their first win over UCLA since joining the Pac-12 and their seventh conference win of the year. For a team that won all of five games in the 2020-21 campaign, this season has been a complete 180.
Last season, the Utes had their lowest point total in the Roberts era and lowest win total in school history. Coming off of one of the toughest years in program history, Roberts knew she needed to make some adjustments. During the offseason, she hired an analyst who had worked in the NBA. She had them look at what Utah was doing well and what Utah struggled with, along with what allowed the best teams in the Pac-12 to be successful.
After receiving the analyst’s report, Roberts used the information to reinvent what the team’s structure was offensively as well as what the team valued and tracked throughout the season. She then took the results to the players and got them to buy into the reinvented system. The result has been one of the most prolific offenses in the country.
Utah currently is the top scoring offense in the Pac-12 and a top-12 offense nationally, averaging 78.0 points per game. A large reason for the Utes’ offensive success is how effectively and consistently they have shot the three this year. They lead the conference in threes made per game and are top-four in the entire NCAA with 9.7 triples made per game. Their offense is incredibly balanced, with three players in the top 18 of the Pac-12 in scoring and four players who’ve had multiple 20-point games. The Utes have real depth, which is extremely difficult for other teams to combat.
“Four of the five people on the floor at any time can shoot the three,” Maxwell told The Next. “Having that many players that can go off for 15 points at any given moment, not just having one player that can do that, is hard to defend.”
A big reason for Utah’s success on offense this year has been getting the best looks possible. The team really focuses on taking a great shot, whether that is two seconds or 28 seconds into the shot clock. According to Synergy Sports, Utah leads the Pac-12 in points per possession at .924, which is top-12 in the country. Roberts really tries to emphasize to her players what shots are the most efficient and will help the team be most successful.
“It’s process over results. We teach them what a great shot is in terms of points per possession … so if you take a great shot and miss it, that’s okay,” Roberts told The Next. “We call shots between 15 and 19 feet ‘death shots,’ and any time anyone takes a death shot in practice, an airhorn goes off. It’s like training a puppy.”
Another key reason for the Utes’ success this year has been the addition of two excellent freshmen, Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson. Both are averaging double figures and are two of the top three scoring freshmen in the Pac-12. Kneepkens had a season-high 21 points in a road win at Cal earlier this month, while Johnson’s 20 points led the Utes at UCLA last Sunday. They have combined to win seven Pac-12 Freshman of the Week awards this year. Their consistency has been one of the most impressive things about them.
“There are a lot of times with freshmen where they have good weekends and then weekends where you just don’t notice them, but they’ve been consistent the entire season, especially Gianna,” Roberts said. “Both of them are fearless, which is rare for a freshman to want the ball in those situations, to take the big shot, to want to guard the best player, all those things, which they both do.”
The freshmen are one of the main reasons why Utah’s offense has a chance to break records. The Utes need to make three 3-pointers in their final regular-season game against Oregon to set a program record for threes made in a season. They are only 0.5 points behind their highest scoring average in a season in school history of 78.5, which occurred during the 1978-79 season. They also lead the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds per game and are second in rebounding margin despite the fact that their leading rebounder averages only 4.5 rebounds per game.
“Rebounding was one of the things that was really highlighted in what aren’t we doing well in the analytic report,” Roberts said. “So we’ve put a premium on it. We start every practice with a rebounding drill; some of them are super physical and some are just to get the mindset. We’ve gotten the players really bought in on the value of rebounding.”
Not only will their offense likely set records, but the Utes are also looking to accomplish things they haven’t done since they moved to the Pac-12. The last time Utah made the NCAA Tournament was in 2011, when it was still a member of the Mountain West. The Utes also have already made history this year with their win on Thursday over Oregon State, which secured their first above-.500 season in Pac-12 play. A win on Saturday against Oregon would tie the program record for the most conference wins since joining the Pac-12. It would also give them a chance to finish in the top four of the conference and get a coveted first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.
“Obviously, we’re not there yet, but to be able to do things that at Utah that haven’t been done before has always been the goal for everyone on the team,” Maxwell said. “We have a column in our practice gym with all our NCAA Tournament appearances by year, and there is a circle next to the last year we made the NCAA Tournament. That has been the goal for the whole year: That empty circle is going to have 2022 written in it.”
This team has brought fresh life to the Utah program, and Roberts has consistently said how much she has enjoyed coaching this group of players. With one regular-season game remaining, the Utes are in prime position to make the NCAA Tournament. They have a NET rating of 23 and could finish as high as second in the Pac-12. That is a pretty big difference from their projected 10th-place finish in the Pac-12 preseason poll. Roberts is looking forward to what comes next.
“My goal is on Selection [Sunday] to hear Utah called. That’ll be the moment I most remember from the season, so we need to take care of business and make sure it happens.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.