Runnin’ Utes in serious need of turning around road woes with Los Angeles trip up next

University of Utah Utes react to a play during a game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2023.
University of Utah Utes react to a play during a game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2023. | Marielle Scott, Deseret News

Los Angeles hasn’t been a city of dreams for the Utah men’s basketball team since the school joined the Pac-12.

For the Runnin’ Utes’ sake, though, and their NCAA Tournament hopes, they’ll need to turn that trend around to reverse a season-worst slump.

Utah heads to Los Angeles for a Thursday night tilt against USC (9 p.m. MST, FS1) having lost four of its last five games, including a pair of home losses last week — the first time all season the Utes have lost at the Huntsman Center.

Craig Smith understands the predicament the Utes find themselves in — this slump has dropped Utah to the bottom half of the Pac-12 standings and has put their once-strong NCAA hopes in dangerous straits — and is focused on the fact there’s still time to achieve this season’s goals.

Utah has seven regular-season games left and is guaranteed at least one postseason game in the Pac-12 Tournament.

That’s essentially 25% of the season remaining, and perhaps more if the Utes get a postseason run going.

“We’re still in a good position to accomplish everything we want,” Smith told reporters Tuesday.

“... Now we’ve got to work hard on playing our best basketball down the stretch and I think just keeping the game simple on both ends of the floor will really, really help us here in the back half of the season.”

The triple-overtime loss to then-No. 8 Arizona last week could have reversed the fortunes the Utes find themselves in, and after that exhausting matchup, Utah simply didn’t have enough against Arizona State two days later to pull out a home win.

That leaves Utah (15-9, 6-7 Pac-12) going to USC on Thursday and UCLA on Sunday facing as close to a must-win series as it has all season.

It could come at a perfect time, or it could further derail what the Utes had built earlier in the year.

Those answers will come in Los Angeles, where Utah has struggled to win consistently on the road against the Bruins and Trojans — soon that won’t be an issue, with Utah joining the Big 12 next year.

For now, though, USC is the latest team to present a challenge, even if the Trojans are performing well under expectations this season under coach Andy Enfield.

USC (9-15, 3-10 Pac-12) has talents like Boogie Ellis (16.4 points per game, a team-high 60 3-pointers) and freshman Isaiah Collier (15.8 points, 4.0 assists per game) leading the way, with Bronny James — LeBron’s son — also in the mix.


The Trojans, though, have lost eight of nine since starting league play 2-2.

That doesn’t mean Smith and the Utes will be taking USC, a roster full of four- and five-star talent, lightly.

“They’re deep. They can play a lot of different guys and they have played a lot, so we’ve got to figure out who they’re playing,” Smith said.

“This is going to be a big personnel game. We’ve got to really understand their personnel, what they do well and try to take away those strengths. We’ve got to be better on the defensive end.”

The Utes, Trojans and Bruins are prime examples of teams whose expectations are ever-changing as the season progresses.

USC and UCLA were predicted to finish second and third in the conference race, respectively, in the league’s preseason poll.

UCLA started off Pac-12 action playing poorly by losing three of four, but since getting blown out 90-44 at Utah on Jan. 11, the Bruins have turned things around, winning seven of eight and have put themselves back in the Pac-12 race.

USC, meanwhile, has stumbled to the bottom of the Pac-12 standings, where it’s tied with Oregon State, and dealt with its share of injuries.

Utah has shown at times it’s NCAA Tournament worthy — the Utes’ three Quad 1 wins (at home vs. BYU, on the road at Saint Mary’s and a neutral-site win over Wake Forest) display the potential this team can play to.

Runnin’ Utes on the air

Utah (15-9, 6-7 Pac-12)
at USC (9-15, 3-10 Pac-12)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
Galen Center (Los Angeles)
Radio: 700 AM

The Utes, though, have struggled in road games, particularly on defense, and are still searching for consistency there. Five of Utah’s final seven regular-season games are on the road.

Can this be a get-right weekend for the Utes, or will they be the team that allows others to turn their favors around?

Smith is confident he’s built the right locker room to persevere and put the recent struggles behind them.

“A friend who’s been in the business for a long time used to always say this, you got to let the poison out,” Smith said of the process moving on from the frustration of a loss like last Saturday’s against Arizona State.

“I watch our game … that Saturday night and of course again on Sunday, and then you’re prepping for UCLA and USC and and you’re just not happy, right? And POed, but you gotta let the poison out. You gotta let the poison out. I know what we do works. You know, you’re always trying to fine tune and tinker and put guys in a great position to succeed, but now we move on.”