Underestimated Utes? You bet

Updated: February 3, 2004, 2:47 AM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

As a No. 11 seed three years ago in the NCAA Tournament, Utah made its first appearance in the Sweet 16.

Kim Smith
Utah's Kim Smith, left, was the Mountain West's newcomer and player of the year last season.
This season, don't be surprised to see the Utes get a better seed and continue to make plenty of noise come March.

No, Utah isn't even ranked in the top 25 right now, but the Utes (14-4) might be one of the nation's most underrated teams. Elaine Elliott is an incredible coach, and with three experienced seniors and one of the best sophomores in the country in its starting lineup, Utah is easily the best thing in the Mountain West Conference this season.

Elliott, one of just 20 active NCAA Division I women's basketball coaches with at least 400 wins at their current school, has guided Utah to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and a 427-175 record. During her tenure, the Utes have won seven regular-season conference titles and five league tournament championships.

Sophomore Kim Smith, who won the newcomer and player of the year awards last season in the Mountain West, leads the way for Utah, which has won 24 consecutive home games - the nation's second longest home win streak behind Texas. The 6-foot-1 forward -- who like former OU standout Stacey Dales-Schuman and the NBA's Steve Nash prove there's some really great talent in Canada -- leads Utah in scoring (15.8 points per game), rebounds (7.0), and shoots 50.2 percent from the field and 44 percent and reached double-digits in 45 of 48 career games.

Utah also can be deadly from 3-point range, hitting 40.8 percent of its attempts from downtown. Reserve Julie Wood leads the team in that category, hitting 31 of 59 3-pointers (52.5 percent), and Smith, who shoots 44.3 percent from beyond the arc, also has nailed 31 3-pointers.

Still, defense might be Utah's biggest strength. Elliott is a great defensive coach, and in three of the past four seasons, her team has led the nation in defense. The Utes really limits their opponents' offense, and force foes to be patient and figure out what execution is going to work against them.

Utah might not have the fastest players in the nation, or the best athletes, but they play smart, position team defense and funnel the ball to the baseline. And as a result, opponents are averaging just 53.8 points against Utah this season.

Elliott also has surrounded herself with a talented staff, including assistant Shelley Jarrard. The former Vanderbilt standout participated in four NCAA Sweet Sixteens for the Commodores. I've always thought it's important to have someone in that locker room who knows what it's like to play at that level, who can look her players in the eye and tell them what it was like to play in the SEC, which was the toughest conference in women's basketball at the time.

Utah is a blue-collar team, and the same holds true for its offense. The Utes make good use of their screen and back-door cuts, and really are a defensive nightmare if you're playing them. But they are smart, too, and are really good at reading the defense coming at them.

Utah, which beefed up its nonconference schedule this year with games against UC Santa Barbara, Oklahoma, Oregon State and Fresno State, also ranks first or second in every major statistical category in the conference, including field-goal percentage, 3-point shooting, defensive rebounds, assists and scoring.

For the past two years, we've maintained that the Mountain West Conference is an up-and-coming league with some top-notch coaches. Elliott is the dean of coaches in this conference. These coaches don't get the notoriety they deserve, but don't be surprised to see these guys get a 5 or 6 seed come March.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.