Utah Utes (9-2)
So full disclosure for those who aren't aware: I'm a bit of a Michigan Wolverines fan. I might be bitter about Utah thrashing Michigan in non-conference play.
But let's put that aside for a bit.
Utah has the odd distinction of only losing two games, both of which were considered upsets by Omni Rankings at home. When you combine that with the weakest strength of schedule in the conference, it's obvious that there are quite a few questions about this team heading into Pac-12 play.
AND OBVIOUSLY THAT MICHIGAN GAME WAS JUST A FLUKE AND A HUGE UPSET.
Four Factors statistics for Utah during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for Utah during non-conference play.
Narrative description: A slower-paced team that moves the ball extremely well to outshoot their opponents but might struggle to rebound and force turnovers against Pac-12 opponents. Their post scorers carry the team offensively and are complemented by strong 3-point shooting.
SOS: 43.63 (307th nationally)
Upset losses: vs. North Dakota, vs. BYU
MVP: Michelle Plouffe, F (6'4", Jr., 15.84 MVP)
This one is a little bit surprising - from watching them and doing a quick scan of their season box score and I think I would have guessed that Taryn Wicijowski would be their MVP. But what Plouffe does is a couple of little things that this metric values highly*: she leads the team in blocks and steals, with a very impressive 4.5% steal percentage for a player her size. But the other thing that really stands out on a team that has a bit of a turnover issue is that Wicijowski has turned the ball over significantly more often than Plouffe during non-conference play; if you want a difference in value that one can't be ignored for a team that goes at a slower pace thus making each possession more valuable.
- That synergy number is outstanding and particularly intriguing given that it does take turnovers into account - they turn the ball over more often than their opponents at this slow pace. The thing is that they still don't turn it over that often, which makes them a very efficient offense.
- Utah will enter conference play one tenth of a percent (35.2%) behind Arizona as the best 3-point shooting team in the league (Michigan struggled with that in the first half a bit). So when you move the ball well, have an efficient post player and can knock down threes, you can definitely make things happen.
- Defensively, Utah is disciplined, which is sort of the picture you get from a team that doesn't give up a whole lot of offensive rebounds and holds teams to a reasonably low percentage but doesn't force turnovers much.
- To reiterate a point above, Utah's negative turnover differential is about them not forcing turnovers rather than them being a turnover-prone team.
- While they hold teams to a low offensive rebounding percentage, they're not necessarily getting a lot of their own either. And a large part of that is that neither of their starting post players are very good offensive rebounders. Another thing that has to be accounted for is that they do shoot quite a few 3-pointers, so that's going to generate longer boards and their guards aren't necessarily dynamic rebounders compared to others in the conference. As a result, they're not going to give themselves a lot of second chance points.
- This has not been a very deep team in non-conference play: four players (Plouffe, Wicijowski, Iwanli Rodgrigues, and Danielle Rodriguez) accounted for 75% of the overall statistical production in non-conference play.
- Saying a team has a strong synergy rating can be a blessing and a curse: on the one hand it means a team can execute extremely well; on the other hand, it can just as easily be a sign that a team relies really heavily on ball movement and doesn't have a lot of dynamic one-on-one scorers. For Utah, the latter seems to be the case as their guards have mostly below average usage rates while their posts take the majority of the shots. That's compounded when considering the matter of depth mentioned above.
X-Factor: Danielle Rodriguez, G (5'10", Fr., 7.25 MVP)
Rodriguez has the statistical profile of a pure point guard: a team-high 3.70 pure point rating, which is great for any college point guard, and less than three shots per game. Thus far, she has started every game of her career but the question as a freshman point guard who has played against one of the weakest schedules in the nation to date is whether she can remain that efficient during conference play. If not, that depth will suffer anymore.
Key question: Has their SOS inflated their stats?
Real Time RPI's power rankings have Utah ranked sixth in the conference right now, but the Washington Huskies are right on their heels, the Arizona Wildcats aren't too far behind that, and the Washington State Cougars have a few non-conference wins to be proud of. Against faster paced teams who can shut down their ball movement, they could really struggle and fall further down the standings than their non-conference stats might suggest. But to their advantage, their top two players are juniors so the future might still be bright.
*MEV - and thus MVP - is a NBA metric, meaning the weights could be quite different for women's college ball. I use it anyway to sort out a team's depth and the relative value of players, but that caveat has to be noted in a case like this.