Center stage

The U women’s basketball program is getting a significant amount of national recognition lately-and it’s all coming before the season gets underway.

Practices haven’t even officially begun, but the folks at yearly basketball preview outlets have been hard at work trying to determine who ranks where. The results are in, and there seems to be an emerging consensus that the Utes are going to be very good.

SLAM magazine, for one, recently released its top 15 list of women’s college teams, placing the Utes at No. 13.

More impressive is the national ranking of No. 9 awarded by www.womenscollegehoops.com to the young U squad. The online service even goes so far as to say that the Utes are a “Final Four dark horse-a top 25 lock.”

Sophomore guard Shona Thorburn, one of the team’s leaders and best players, called it an “amazing preseason ranking.”

“It feels really good,” she said. “It’s almost like a personal compliment.”

Last year’s MWC conference player of the year, sophomore forward Kim Smith, said that the high early season rankings generated a feeling of “excitement.”

“It’s always nice when others see and believe what we already know to be true,” Smith said.

Head coach Elaine Elliott had a bit of a different spin on the early rankings, making clear her belief that, while useful, rankings are not always what they are cracked up to be.

“Unfortunately, there have been all kinds of great teams and great seasons that were never noticed by rankings,” she said. “The reality is that people love rankings. The media uses them and they are useful in generating a following. It can be a great thing to attach to a program.”

Elliott’s primary concern with the rankings is that there is very little information available at this point in the year.

“The problem is that they (polls) are based on nothing,” she said. “We haven’t even played a game yet.”

Attributing the preseason honors to last year’s television exposure during the NCAA tournament, Elliott insists that the rankings haven’t increased the pressure on the team.

“We don’t feel any increased pressure,” she said. “This is something this program has always faced to some degree since its inception.”

Elliott admits that the rankings are a much bigger deal to the players than to the coaching staff.

“The rankings don’t get me all excited,” she said. “But the kids love to follow that kind of thing, and I hope that we’re better off for it. It’s exciting for them and it can be fun.”

Thorburn is certain that the rankings will have a positive effect on the team.

“It gives you more confidence,” she said. “I think it will definitely add to the team’s success this year.”

Smith was a little more cautious in surmising the effect of the rankings.

“It won’t affect us a lot, but we will have a bigger target on our backs,” she said. “In a smaller conference, teams will definitely be gunning for us. But we’ve always had to deal with that, so it shouldn’t be anything new.”

On being referred to as a “Final Four dark horse,” Smith said, “By the end of the year I don’t think that we’re going to be a dark horse, I think we’re going to be a clear cut favorite.”

Smith was even bold enough to admit that the idea of winning a national championship was not a stretch for this group. “I think the term ‘national championship’ can definitely enter our vocabulary-and so does the team. We’ve been working really hard this offseason and we’re ready,” she said.

It may seem a bit early in the year to be considering such matters, but the basketball season is right around the corner, as the team’s first practice is Oct. 18 and the team’s first exhibition game comes on Nov. 8.

With the team’s hopes and expectations running sky-high, it should be an interesting season at the very least.

[email protected]