Utah women’s basketball is already stacked but begins camp with key additions

Utah women’s basketball players huddle during the team’s first day of preseason training camp on the University of Utah’s campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023.
Utah women’s basketball players huddle during the team’s first day of preseason training camp on the University of Utah’s campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts called it a luxury that her team has so many returning players following its run to the Sweet 16 last season.

The Utes, who kicked off preseason training camp Tuesday, bring back nine players from a squad that went 27-5 and won the Pac-12 regular-season championship.

“What we focus on in practice is just doing what we do, but doing it better, with more detail and attention.” — Utah reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili

“We’re further along, but we’ve got a great veteran group that understands what we’re trying to do. And the word is luxury — it’s a luxury as a coach when you can focus more on coaching and leading and not doing as much teaching,” Roberts said.

“So we’re going to be advanced in that, ahead of the game, than we typically are.”

Every single player who started a game last season returns, headlined by All-Americans Alissa Pili — the defending Pac-12 Player of the Year — and Gianna Kneepkens.

While four players transferred, Utah didn’t have a single player graduate out last season.

Now, there are three seniors on this year’s team — Pili, guard Isabel Palmer and forward Dasia Young — and a group of juniors — guards Kneepkens, Kennady McQueen and Inês Vieira along with forward Jenna Johnson and center Néné Sow — with high levels of experience.

Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts smiles during the first day of practices at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts smiles during the first day of practices at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
The Utah women’s basketball team began practices for the 2023-24 season Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
The Utah women’s basketball team began practices for the 2023-24 season Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
The Utah women’s basketball team began practices for the 2023-24 season Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
The Utah women’s basketball team began practices for the 2023-24 season Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
Utah women’s basketball players huddle up during the first day of practices at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics
Utah women’s basketball players huddle up during the first day of practices at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics

“Having that whole group, learning from each other, really I think is going to elevate us this year,” Kneepkens said.

When the Utes hit the practice floor Tuesday, a couple of new faces also stood out in a group of familiarity.

First, there’s former BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins, who was hired to be an assistant coach of player development and community ambassador, the program announced in early September.

After an accomplished 21-year career as the BYU women’s basketball coach — Judkins has the most all-time wins among BYU basketball coaches, men’s or women’s — he stepped away from the game in April 2022.

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“For me personally, just as a resource, it’s nice for me to have someone who was a head coach for 21 years. He’s already said some things to me just one-on-one that I’ve thought, ‘That’s a good point.’ It’s an incredible resource, just the wisdom and experience,” Roberts said.

Pili echoed those sentiments.

“He’s a little quiet on the sideline now but he’s been working with our bigs,” the Utes’ star forward said of Judkins. “Just the knowledge we can get from him will obviously help our team elevate to that next level.”

Roberts, the reigning Pac-12 Coach of the Year, said she worked hard to get Judkins — a former Runnin’ Utes player and assistant coach and an NBA basketball player — on her staff, and the two communicated over the past year.

“I started watering the seed on, why don’t you come up and help us? He wasn’t ready last season, but we met several times over the year and he came to some games and I just kinda worked it,” Roberts said.

BYU Cougars head coach Jeff Judkins watches player during a game against Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Judkins, who retired as BYU’s coach in April 2022, joined the Utah women’s program as an assistant coach of player development and community ambassador. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News
BYU Cougars head coach Jeff Judkins watches player during a game against Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Marriott Center on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Judkins, who retired as BYU’s coach in April 2022, joined the Utah women’s program as an assistant coach of player development and community ambassador. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“And the NCAA coincidentally created these new positions in basketball where you can have new coaches that can coach on the floor but not recruit off-campus. So we were able to get a new position and it was serendipitous that way.”

The Utes also brought in three transfers — guard Maty Wilke (from Wisconsin), forward Samantha Crispe (Boston) and forward Alyssa Blanck (BYU).

Wilke brings a year’s worth of starting experience with her, after averaging 11.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game last season for Wisconsin.

The redshirt sophomore shot 34.9% from 3-point range and hit a team-high 61 3-pointers for the Badgers, a seemingly good fit in a Utah program that averaged 8.3 3-pointers per game last season and was fourth nationally in scoring at 82.8 points per game.

“When she went in the portal, we jumped on it,” Roberts said.

Utah’s coach is familiar with Wilke, a native of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, who chose the hometown school her first go-around. Roberts said the Utes “recruited her hard” in high school and even had a visit set up for the 5-foot-10 guard to visit Salt Lake City, then COVID-19 hit.

The Utes got their second chance when she entered the transfer portal in late March.

“She’s come in and been really willing to learn, which is great,” Kneepkens said of Wilke. “She’s super consistent, you know what you’re going to get from her each day.”

With a handful of additions in tow joining a seasoned core, the Utes have set their eyes on advancing to the Elite Eight, or further.

“The momentum coming from last year and then bringing back all our starters and some of our core players just gives us that motivation going forward. What we focus on in practice is just doing what we do, but doing it better, with more detail and attention,” Pili said.

“The chemistry is only going to go up from here.”

Guard Maty Wilke, who Utah coach Lynne Roberts recruited out of high school, transferred to the Utes this offseason after playing two years at Wisconsin. | Andy Manis, Associated Press
Guard Maty Wilke, who Utah coach Lynne Roberts recruited out of high school, transferred to the Utes this offseason after playing two years at Wisconsin. | Andy Manis, Associated Press