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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak talks to team during a timeout against Northwestern State in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017.
It’s not the time of year to be getting concussions with crazy drills but we need to be tougher. That’s the reality. —Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak

SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after Utah’s 84-67 loss at USC on Sunday, head coach Larry Krystkowiak noted that the Utes were on the softer side of the scale when it came to toughness.

Besides losing four straight games, Utah has been outrebounded in all six of its Pac-12 games this season. The Utes have also been outscrapped to 50/50 balls, Krystkowiak continued, and can trace at least five turnovers against the Trojans to a lack of effort.

“We do need to be tougher,” he said as the Utes (10-7, 2-4) prepare for Thursday’s home game against Washington (13-5, 3-2).

Krystkowiak added that toughness is a skill within the game. It’s about having a little bit of an edge to you. It’s a real valuable thing, he said, and hopefully something the Utes can stir up.

Freshman forward Donnie Tillman acknowledges that its something that can be done.

“I think we all just need to work as a collective group — rebounding, defending,” he said.

The concept, he elaborated, is like operating a big machine. If one person isn’t doing his part, then the whole machine stops working.

In preparation for the Huskies, Tillman said the two days of practice needed to be real serious and focus on how to defend the 3-point line better and rebound.

“It’s real simple,” continued Tillman, who stressed that it was about refocusing and “that’s really it.”

Utah opened Pac-12 play with wins at Oregon and Oregon State in late December. The Utes haven’t won since, falling to the Arizona schools at home and the Los Angeles programs on the road.

Rebounding has become a continual issue. Conference opponents are grabbing an average of 7.1 more per game against the Utes. The numbers are skewed, though, by Arizona finishing with a 46-23 advantage.

Another developing problem is three-point defense. Utah led the Pac-12 against long-range shots after four games (.345) before giving up 26 of 52 from behind the arc in L.A. The problems knocked the Utes to 11th in the conference at .406.

“I thought in a lot of those who-punched-first plays, we were the one that got punched first and we didn’t recover,” Krystkowiak said.

The Utes, thus, are determined to increase their toughness.

“There’s plenty we can do to garner a little bit of that. I feel like I can coach that a little bit,” said Krystkowiak, who mentioned playing harder and with some more enthusiasm. “It’s not the time of year to be getting concussions with crazy drills but we need to be tougher. That’s the reality.”

Although Krystkowiak added that it can be hard to find some of that toughness on the road, he isn’t shying down from the importance of having it.

“It’s like leadership. You challenge everybody to be more of a leader. You’re never satisfied with where you are,” he said. “And if anybody on our team thinks they’re tough enough then they’re confused because there’s always a little bit more.”

A lack of toughness, Krystkowiak noted, can rear its head in a lot of different ways — such as being really weak on an end out-of-bounds play, trying to throw the ball in.

“You’ve got to be mentally tough as well and be on edge and have a sense of urgency,” Krystkowiak said.

Utah’s toughness is improved with the return of Tillman. A foot injury has limited him to just two games since Dec. 9.

“Donnie’s one of the tougher guys on our team. So he bumps the meter up there a little bit,” Krystkowiak said. “(But) there’s still plenty of times that he needs to be tougher.”

The Utes face a challenging test in Washington. The Huskies, under first-year head coach Mike Hopkins, are building a solid résumé that includes a 74-65 win over second-ranked Kansas in Kansas City on Dec. 6. They lead the Pac-12 in blocked shots (5.7) and steals (8.9) per game.

“It’s very impressive,” Krystkowiak said of the things Washington is accomplishing under Hopkins. “It seems like there’s quite a bit of enthusiasm in Seattle.”

The Huskies are led by freshman guard Jaylen Nowell (16.7 points), junior forward Noah Dickerson (7.6 rebounds) and junior guard Matisse Thybulle (3.1 steals).

EXTRA STUFF: Utah leads the all-time series with Washington by a 13-9 margin. The Utes have won the past four meetings . . . The Utes are 7-2 against the Huskies in Salt Lake City . . . Utah has lost four straight Pac-12 games for the first time since 2013 . . . Defensively, the Utes have given up 80 points or more in four consecutive games — something they haven’t done since early in the 2011-12 season . . . Utah hosts Washington State Sunday at 6 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.


Washington (13-5, 3-2) at Utah (10-7, 2-4)

Huntsman Center

Thursday, 8 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700AM

Twitter: @DirkFacer