We didn’t play as hard, or as smart, or as together as we needed to. —Larry Krystkowiak
LOS ANGELES — Getting back on track is an obvious priority for the Utah Utes Sunday at USC. They enter the contest on a three-game skid with losses to Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. The slide followed a promising start featuring road wins at Oregon and Oregon State.
“We’ve just got to come out, stick to the game plan, play some defense, get some stops and just trust ourselves, trust our teammates, play together,” said junior guard Sedrick Barefield.
The lengthy list follows lackluster 83-64 setback at UCLA on Thursday. Utah never held a lead at Pauley Pavilion and fell to 10-6 overall and 2-3 in Pac-12 play. The Bruins made their first five shots and seven of eight to take command from the start. Sluggish starts have been a problem for the Utes.
“I think it could be an energy thing. When we’re not hitting shots, maybe it carries over to our defense,” Barefield said. “We’ve just got to make sure we defend and stick to the process, continue to take good shots — play hard, play smart, play together.”
Barefield added that the Utes have a bit of a bad taste in their mouths from the last three games.
“We know we’re better than that,” he said.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak had similar thoughts after breaking the down the UCLA film. He said “it was a little bit of everything” that led to the loss.
“We didn’t play as hard, or as smart, or as together as we needed to,” Krystkowiak said. “It just depended on what play you’re looking at. But it was usually one of those three.”
Of particular note was Utah’s 7-of-26 shooting from 3-point range against the Bruins. Krystkowiak said that at least five of them were shots that shouldn’t have been taken.
“It’s not like we weren’t getting enough of them. You don’t needed to shoot 30 threes in a game,” he continued. “But we had a lot of breakdowns.”
Some of it was shot selection, Krystkowiak explained.
“We didn’t just put the ‘play hard, play smart, play together’ (signage) in our practice facility because we needed to fill up some wall space,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that can get complicated about basketball, but it really, really does comes down to a lot of the simple fundamentals.”
Utah (10-6, 2-3) at USC (12-6, 3-2)
Galen Center, Los Angeles
Sunday, 6 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM
Three travel calls and sloppy footwork led to work in practice Friday at the Galen Center. It prompted some boosters in attendance to ask Krystkowiak why the Utes were working on fundamentals in the middle of the season. “Fixing what’s broken” was his response as he emphasized the shortcomings against UCLA were evenly distributed with not playing hard, smart and together.
“We’re not trying to redesign the wheel or come up with anything magical,” Krystkowiak said. “It really is a little bit more simple having those concepts in place.”
As the Utes look back, the 66-56 win at Oregon on Dec. 29 proved to be a benchmark of sorts. Utah held the Ducks to 41.3 percent shooting and turned the ball over just twice. The Utes pulled down nine offensive rebounds.
“We put it all together. We were playing really hard and we were making good decisions,” said Krystkowiak, who praised the decision-making and togetherness the team showed in Eugene. “We were on point with a lot of the game plan, and, lo and behold, karma kind of takes care of itself, and what happened as a consequence of that is we made a bunch of shots when we were open.”
Utah made 14 of 25 shots over the final 20 minutes in what Krystkowiak called the best half of the season. He noted there were some good stretches in the UCLA game when Utah pulled back into contention after the early outburst. Everyone touched the ball and good decisions were made,
“It’s all before us. It’s pretty evident when we’re good and it’s pretty evident when we’re bad,” Kryskowiak said. “And the faster that we figure that out, the better chance we’ll have of being more competitive on a consistent basis.”
The prospect of possibly falling two games under .500 in conference play in conference play has the Utes vowing to be prepared.
“Win or lose, it really doesn’t matter. We just need to get back to what we do,” said senior forward David Collette. “We need to play harder, play better on defense. The offense is coming together. We’re doing good.
“But I think once we get our guys healthy and start playing harder, play some defense, that’s all we’re worried about,” he added. “It’ll come together once we start doing that.”
Junior guard Parker Van Dyke is confident things will turn around. The good thing, he explained, is it’s still early in the conference season.
Even so, Van Dyke acknowledged it’s time to get going.
“We can’t fall apart. We’ve got to come together, come closer together,” he said. “We still have confidence in ourselves. We still have confidence in our team and we still have confidence we can win big games.”
EXTRA STUFF: Utah leads the all-time series with USC, 22-17. The Utes have won the past eight meetings dating back to 2013. Junior forward Chimezie Metu leads the Trojans with 17.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. USC announced that sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton will not play for the rest of the season following an internal investigation that revealed “the receipt of extra benefits.”