1 of 4
Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Utah Utes center Megan Huff (5) drives around the defense of Saint Mary's Gaels guard Stella Beck (21) as Utah hosts Saint Mary's at The Huntsman Center in Salt Lake on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017.
I love the type of player that she is, the type of athlete that she is. —Utah head coach Lynne Roberts on Megan Huff

SALT LAKE CITY — Megan Huff never had an offseason until last winter when the NCAA transfer rules handed her a basketball season on the sideline.

She spent her life constantly transitioning from volleyball seasons to basketball seasons, and any break from one sport became an obligation to the other. After two seasons of spending most of her time on the bench as a volleyball player, the Washington native decided to focus on basketball and transfer to a Pac-12 school.

“I just wasn’t getting very much playing time, and I thought it was kind of a waste of time, when I could be developing my game in the off-season,” Huff said. “I wanted to go to the highest level that I could be at. Somewhere that was going to have all the facilities I needed. I wanted to play against the best people in the country, and just make sure I could develop my game because I want to play professionally afterward.”

She wasn’t sure what to expect in her first actual off-season, but it turned out to be just what she — and her new team — needed.

Not only did the 6-foot-3 forward gain valuable weight and strength through a specifically designed training and nutrition program, she developed skills that have made her one of the team’s statistical leaders. She is averaging 13.4 points and eight rebounds per game, which puts her almost exactly even, team leader and all-conference player Emily Potter (13.5 points, 8 rebounds). She is also shooting .429 from 3-point range, something that she never expected when she started.

“There’s no doubt,” she said of how focusing on training and skill development last winter made her a better player. “Like, gaining weight helped, having extra time in the gym, I’ve never shot 3s before. I had shot maybe two 3s at Hawaii. And I got in the gym, and I just worked on developing my skills, like my ball-handling. Once I decided to transfer, that’s when I started actually working out by myself too. Before that I just worked out with my team.”

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said called Huff when she was on a vacation visiting her parents.

“We just identified her as someone we had to get,” Roberts said. “I love the type of player that she is, the type of athlete that she is. She’s fluid, graceful, long – those are my favorite type of players. And then, just getting to know her, she’s a really good kid. …I just knew she fit.”

Roberts said they customized a training plan for Huff, and then the redshirt junior added her own layers to what coaches prescribed.

“I just tried to keep myself busy,” she said. “I had trainers I worked with, and then I got a skills trainer outside of this training. … I worked out with the men’s players and stuff like that.”

All that work has also earned her the respect of her teammates. “She can work on the perimeter and on the inside, and I feel like it makes defenses play honest,” said point guard Erica Bean. “I think she has a lot of versatility to her game. I definitely love playing with her. She gets up and down the floor, and she can jump out of the gym. …I know she’s been one of the best I’ve played with.”

But it isn’t just what Huff can do on the court, it’s what she brings into the locker room.

“She brings leadership, and just her style of play, setting that example, and also vocal leadership,” Bean said. “We need it just to get the team steered back on track when we’re falling off.”

On Friday night, Huff will realize the reality of all that hard work when Utah opens Pac-12 play against Arizona State at 6 p.m. at the Huntsman Center.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “At Hawaii, we played against UCLA in the NCAA tournament, and I was just so hungry to play after that. I just love competition, good competition.”

Both players and coaches said this Utah team has a much different energy heading into conference play.

“I think we’re just super-focused,” Huff said. “Everyone had kind of grown to another level, and we’ve put in the work so we can get better, and we’re ready to play.”

Bean said the team is more aware of what they do well, and how they need to prepare mentally to perform on the court.

“Maybe I would say we were a little overconfident,” she said of last year’s team. “But because of last year, we know what to expect of the Pac-12 this year and we’re looking forward to it.”

The biggest difference, the players said, is how they view a loss.

“We take those as opportunities to grow,” Bean said.

Roberts said the team has a completely different mindset.

“I think there is more sincere confidence,” she said. “Last year it was kind of like devastation when we lost. …I hate losing more than I like winning. But I think in our league we’ve got to understand that no one is going undefeated.”

So, while she acknowledges it sounds cliché and like ‘coach speak’, this year’s team is focused on getting better each day.

“I feel like if we’re doing the things we’re good at, we’re going to win some. But we’re probably going to lose a couple, too. That’s just going to happen, and we have to kind of have a next game mindset.”