We’re excited to be back home and it will be a good chance to get them back. It’s a huge week for us — we need these wins if we want to have a chance of going to the tournament. —Utah senior David Collette
SALT LAKE CITY — Since the start of the Pac-12 season, the Utah Utes have played just three poor games and two of them were on an early January trip to Los Angeles, where the Utes were blown out by UCLA by 19 points and USC by 17 points.
The Utes have a chance for some redemption this weekend while trying to keep their late-season surge going, taking on the Bruins Thursday night (7 p.m.) at the Huntsman Center, followed by a game with the Trojans Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
Winners of seven of their last nine games, the Utes stand fourth in the Pac-12 standings at 9-6, a game behind both UCLA and USC at 10-5. A pair of wins will vault the Utes into at least a tie for second place going into the season finale against Colorado at home next weekend.
Coach Larry Krystkowiak talked earlier this week about how his team “controls its own destiny” and won’t have to rely on help from other teams to stay in the top four of the conference and avoid an opening-round game in the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
“We’ve only got three left, so we’ll just try to take care of business with what’s in front of us,” he said.
Krystkowiak calls UCLA, “the best offensive team in our conference” and says the Utes need to slow the Bruins transition game and not allow any easy baskets.
“They get up and down the floor and they’ve got some tremendous athletes,” Krystkowiak said. “They do a really good job of defensive rebounding — first in our conference in rebounding. They have a double-double machine in (Thomas) Welsh and (Aaron) Holiday (19.4 ppg, 5.7 apg) is the best point guard in our conference.”
However, even though the Utes aren’t as offensively-minded as the Bruins, they’re not going to be afraid to run with them Thursday night.
“Pace is a funny thing,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re in pretty good shape in terms of conditioning and we’re playing at elevation. As we all know this mountain trip is not easy. If we can get stops we’re going to try to generate our own pace. It’s an important factor for us to find the right pace and we will.”
The Bruins come into Thursday’s game at 10-5 in conference play, having beaten Oregon State and Oregon at home last weekend. Like the Utes, UCLA is on the NCAA bubble and can’t afford any more losses in Pac-12 play.
A better start will be a key for the Utes against UCLA. In the Jan. 11 game at Pauley Pavilion, the Utes fell behind 19-7 by the first media timeout and faced an uphill battle the rest of the way.
“I remember it well,” said Krystkowiak. “They had 19 points four minutes into the game, which according to my math puts them on pace for about 190 points, which would have been a new record. They throttled us pretty good.”
Senior center David Collette, who has been on a tear over the last four games, hitting 84 percent of his field goals, said the Utes need wins this weekend if they want to go to the NCAA Tournament next month.
“We had a terrible road trip down there playing against them — we had no energy,” he said. “We’re excited to be back home and it will be a good chance to get them back. It’s a huge week for us — we need these wins if we want to have a chance of going to the tournament.
UTE NOTES: The Utes played their most recent game against Washington State without two key players, reserve center Jayce Johnson and starting guard Sedrick Barefield, who went out after playing just four minutes for unspecified reasons. When asked about their status for Thursday, Krystkowiak said, “no injury discussion, sorry” ... Utah is 10-2 at home this year. The Bruins are only 2-5 in road games this season ... UCLA leads the league with 39 rebounds a game, while the Utes are 10th in rebound margin ... Utah is 7-10 all time against UCLA and 3-6 since joining the Pac-12.