Eight games into the young 2012-13 basketball season, the Utah womens basketball team finds itself sitting at 7-1, with the only black mark coming off a 53-48 loss to rival BYU.
Disappointing because, at 7-0 the Utes hoped to extend their win streak to 8-0 at home in a rivalry game. While both Taryn Wicijowski and Michelle Plouffe acknowledged the elevation in intensity in against their rival, the BYU game was not, by any means, the biggest game of the season.
"I think it's a huge rivalry, and it's a big deal for the school and the State [of Utah] and all that stuff. I think they're fun games to play and we both have strong teams, but ultimately, it's not as important because we are focused on conference play," said Plouffe prior to the square off against the Cougars. "I guess in some way, it is the biggest game of the season for us, right now, because it's the next game on our schedule. That's how we're trying to approach our season."
Saying that the Lady Utes hoped to win isn't exactly the right wording for a Utah team who had large, but unfulfilled expectations last season, and looked to carry those into 2012-13.
"Coming into the season we talked about what we wanted our goals to be, and what kind of team we wanted to be," said junior forward Taryn Wicijowski. "What we said when we looked at our schedule was that we had an opportunity to go un-defeated in pre-season. We felt like we had that opportunity if we played to our full potential and play like we can every night, we should go un-defeated."
The Utes are this secure because the level at which they're currently playing is simply what they expect, even after two consecutive down seasons spanning 2010-2012. Even with an 18-17 record, the Utes finished strong enough in 2010-11to snatch a coveted NCAA Tournament invite, made all the more special because the Huntsman Center was a pre-ordained first round site.
Though Utah played valiantly against national powerhouse Notre Dame, the Utes were ousted in the first round, but relished the opportunity and experience to face off against an elite program like Notre Dame.
In some sense, the game was its last, real measuring stick for what this Lady Utes team could be. The game gave Utah the opportunity to gauge its readiness to compete at a higher level, and despite the loss, came away feeling confident.
Looking to build off the strong finish 2010-11 and carry the momentum from their NCAA tournament appearance, expectations were high for 2011-12. Instead, the Utes' first season in the Pac-12 conference ended with a disappointing 16-16 record.
Thrashed by injuries to nearly every major contributor with the exception of Michelle Plouffe, the Utes simply didn't have the personnel available to compete last season.
For all intents and purposes, this season is a do-over because this time, they're finally healthy.
So far the results are promising, indicators that the Utes weren't misguided in their high expectations last season. However, without the frustration and adversity the team endured last season, the Utes may not be as hungry as they are today - or as bonded.
"I think we have a chemistry this year that we may not have had in the past few years, and I think that's another reason we're so successful so far. I think that comes from the fact that we have a lot of people stepping up this year," explained Plouffe. "Our seniors have done a great job of leading but it's not just that, it's not just one person or one group, it's everyone kind of stepping up. Everyone is doing their part, the seniors are leading and teaching the younger players, and they younger players are doing a good job of accepting that information."
The Utes are counting on that team chemistry to help elevate team play throughout the season. While a strong out of conference record is great way to start a season, the ultimate goal is to earn another NCAA tournament appearance.
In order to do that, the Utes must finish near the top of Pac-12 conference; a tall order given the fact that Stanford has parked itself atop the national rankings at No. 1. Cal looks poised to have a strong campaign ranked at No. nine and 11 in AP and USAToday polls, respectively. Meanwhile, UCLA rounds out Pac-12 nationally ranked teams, currently ranked at No. 14 in one poll and 17 in the other.
The Utes welcome the challenge, confident that their double-pronged post attack will be difficult to stop, as Wicijowski and Plouffe together average 34.3 points per game, which represents exactly half of the Lady Utes' average 68.8 points per game. The two Canadians, who were friends prior to coming to Utah, also average 15.5 rebounds per game, representing another significant chunk of Utah's production on the boards.
The two-headed monster is a nightmare match up for opponents, and has been since 2009 as the Wicijowski and Plouffe were teammates on Canada's FIBA U19 team, beating up on international opponents.
It was there that the two learned to play together, and years later at the highest level of college basketball, the two are just coming into their own, as a tandem.
"We've been playing together since high school, so we really understand each others' games.That makes it hard for other teams to guard the two of us together, because lots of teams want to double team off the other post player, but they can't do that off [Plouffe] because she's shooting a really high percentage from three right now," explained Wicijowski of her dynamic with Plouffe. "I just think we complement each other really well, because we don't have the same games. They're a little bit different, but they complement each other really well."
The two also formed a friendship that has paid off in spades for head coach Anthony Levrets and the Utah basketball program. Wicijowski, a year older than Plouffe, was recruited by Utah and jumped the border to play in the States. Plouffe however, was unknown to the Utah coaches, but thanks to her friend Wicijowski, that wasn't the case for long.
"I definitely pushed my coaches to recruit her. They hadn't even seen her play, but I told them they had to recruit her and get her down here," Wicijowski said of her efforts to get Plouffe to Utah. "Then I talked to her, I didn't push her or anything, but I just let her know that I thought she'd be a really good fit here, and that I really wanted her here."
For Levrets, who was involved in recruiting both players, the decision to go after each player respectively, was an easy one.
"I saw [Wicijowski] and I knew right off the bat that she was someone we wanted here. Not a year later, I saw [Plouffe] and it was the same thing," he recalled. "Inside of five minutes, I knew I wanted them both. It was immediate. You don't get very many chances to coach special players, so when you see it, you recognize it immediately."
While Wicijowski and Plouffe are the two pillars upon which Utah womens basketball is currently built, both are quick to credit their teammates, especially senior guard Iwalani Rodrigues, who represents the third, and maybe most critical component of the Utes' dynamic.
"A big part of our success is [Iwalani Rodrigues] being totally healthy and shooting the ball really well. She's shooting it like she was [before the injury] and that's a big piece for us," explained Wicijowski of the senior guard who averages 11.3 points per game. "Because she's on the outside shooting like she is, teams can't afford to double team us in the post."
In Rodrigues, Wicijowski and Plouffe, the three upperclassmen represent a formidable, at times, insurmountable challenge on the court.
Each of the upper-classmen are 1,000 point career scorers, with Plouffe becoming the newest member of that club on November 21 with 14 points in a victory over Northern Colorado. If history is any indicator, what the three Utes are doing could make for a special season.
Having three 1,000 point scorers on the same team is a feat that has only been accomplished two other times in school history, and in each instance, the Utes enjoyed enormous success.
In each of those instances the Utes enjoyed huge success going 22-8 in 1991-92 with Mikki-Kane Barton, Karen Alcorn and Tanya Zachary all hitting achieving the 1,000 point marker. In 1980-81, the Lady Utes had four 1,000 point scorers on a team that would finish 24-9 that season.
With their own expectations and confidence high, the Utes remain grounded.
"I think we have a lot of confidence, and some swagger. That's something that you need in order to be successful, but while we have that, at no point has my team ever stopped working, or started thinking the work was over with," explained Levrets. "We know that our success comes from understanding where we are, and knowing that even if that's pretty good, it's nowhere near good enough. We understand that in order to reach our full potential, we are going to have to continue working, growing, learning and improving."