SALT LAKE CITY — When Anthony Levrets officially moved from interim coach to full-fledged head coach of the Utah women's basketball team in March, he did so with high expectations.
Compete at the top of the Pac-12?
Higher than that.
"We want to be able to continue what Elaine (Elliott) started," Levrets said.
Being able to do that, he added, will allow the Utes to play with the best in their new conference — and the top teams in the country.
Levrets' team is stepping into a league with a great history surrounding women's basketball. From member schools that were a part of the first women's intercollegiate game in the nation — a matchup between Stanford and California in 1896 — to having a team advance to the Sweet 16 in 28 of the last 30 NCAA tournaments, to being the conference of current national powerhouse Stanford, the Pac-12 has a wealth of talented programs.
"I grew up in the Northwest and my wife played for Washington State," Levrets said. "I understand the passion those communities have for their sports. Women's basketball is a really big deal in that league, and we're excited to become a part of that."
The Utes will add their own rich tradition when they officially become part of the Pac-12 on July 1. Before stepping aside for a year-long leave of absence and then retirement, Elliott established the Utes as a team to be reckoned with in her 27 seasons as head coach. She retired with 71.3 winning percentage.
"When I arrived at Utah (four years ago), that was already the tradition," Levrets said of playing on a national stage. "We've done a good job of recruiting kids at that level already."
However, he did echo the idea that coaches of other Utah programs have stated: Adding the Pac-12 label will change the recruiting process considerably.
"It will get rid of the first 20 minutes of recruiting meetings where we have to explain why Utah is a great school even though it's not in a major conference," he said. "The extra exposure will allow our athletic department to shine and also show why this university is such a great place to get an education."
In addition to the added exposure the conference affiliation will give Utah, Levrets has made two additions to his coaching staff: A local face in JD Gustin, who has been the head coach at Westminster College the past seven years, and a West Coast face in Willette White, who has worked with the Washington, UCLA and Oregon programs.
"Willette will help us become more relevant sooner," Levrets said. "She is well-known on the West Coast; she will help get the word about Utah out to others."
White agreed that the goal is to spread the Utes' name to allow more people to see what the university has to offer.
"It's brand recognition," she said. "The Pac-12 will allow for more exposure, we'll be on TV more often."
She then added, "There are so many kids in Los Angeles and the Northwest and all over that have wanted to play in the Pac-10. This gives them another option, and it'll be fun to get Utah's name out to people who don't know us well."
As for the upcoming season, the Utes couldn't be more thrilled for the next challenge.
After peaking at just the right time and upsetting the top two seeds in the Mountain West Conference tournament for both the tournament title and a bid to the NCAA Tournament, Levrets said his young team is ready for the Pac-12.
"We're prepared to play whoever is on our schedule," he said, noting that the Utes have played with the best already, just not night-in and night-out.
"Stanford is dominating that league. We've played them every year, and we know how good they are," he said, referring to when the Utes hosted the Cardinal in their home-opener this past season, losing by just nine points to the eventual Final Four team. "We'll try to go win every game we play and not worry about who is next."
The team is looking forward to having forward Taryn Wicijowski, the 2010 MWC freshman of the year, back on the court after she suffered an ACL injury early in the 2010-2011 season. Playing without Wicijowski forced Michelle Plouffe and Diana Rolniak into roles as major contributors and, Levrets said, having the three of them on the court together next season could create a perfect storm.
"They are very potent on the floor together, and then you add in a four-year starter in Janita Badon and one of the nation's best 3-point shooters in Iwalani Rodrigues," he said.
After wrapping up successful spring workouts, Levrets said he is pleased with the amount of depth his first Pac-12 team will have.
White added, "Sure, it will be a challenge, for the coaches and for the kids, but we're very much looking forward to it."
Utah women's basketball at a glance
Biggest advantage: Elaine Elliott handed over a winning program 32 years in the making to Anthony Levrets. They have a system that works, even against the best teams, already in place.
Biggest challenge: Youth, again. Last year, the Utes lost a lot of winnable games due to inexperience and mid-game mental breakdowns. They all have another year of experience under their belts, but the roster is still heavy with underclassmen.
Number: 1: The number of seasons Anthony Levrets has served as the Utes' head coach and the number of seniors on this season's roster.
Willette White says: "Sure, it will be a challenge, for the coaches and for the kids, but we're very much looking forward to it."
Leaders of the Pac: Stanford has dominated the conference, winning or tying for the top spot in league play 11 consecutive years and 20 of the last 23 seasons. Every Pac-10 team made a trip to the NCAA Tournament in the 1990s, with four teams being invited nine of those years.
Bottom line: Youth and injuries doomed the Utes last year. This season, though, Levrets has a year of head coaching experience and he'll also have Taryn Wicijowski back on the court. If Utah can stay healthy and build on the experience, the Utes will be just fine.
Utah women's basketball head count
NCAA scholarship max limit: 15
Utah actual award, 2010-11: 14
Pac-12 women's basketball programs: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State.
Note: The University of Utah offers the NCAA maximum for all sports, should the coach want to use them. Numbers reflect not only people who have quit, are cut or withdrawn, but also cases where a coach held back scholarships (or parts of scholarships in the case of the equivalency sports) in one year so that they would have more to use in another.