Los Angeles • The Utes do themselves no favors by falling behind at the start of games and start of halves. Without a player capable of single-handedly dominating a game or an abundance of depth, deficits loom even larger for the Utes than for some teams.
Thursday night, UCLA built an 11-point lead inside of the first four minutes of the game. Utah climbed back within three points in the first half, but trailed by nine at halftime and found itself down by 15 less than five minutes into the second half.
The Utes (10-6, 2-3) must try to buck that trend if they want to stop the three-game losing slide when they match up with USC (12-6, 3-2) at 6 p.m. MT Sunday at the Galen Center in a game that will be broadcast on ESPNU.
“We didn’t just put the play hard, play smart, play together in our practice facility because we needed to fill up some wall space,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said, lamenting his team’s performance in an 83-64 loss at UCLA.
Slow starts have dogged the Utes throughout conference play. Oregon jumped out to a 21-8 lead in the first half against the Utes. At Oregon State, a six-point Utes lead turned into a six-point deficit in the first eight minutes of the second half. In Salt Lake City, Arizona sprinted out to an eight-point lead in the first five and a half minutes, and Arizona State put the Utes in a double-digit hole in less than nine minutes of play.
“It’s been a different story [each time],” Krystkowiak said. “We had an Arizona game where we missed a bunch of great looks and they made a bunch of great shots. Then we had an Arizona State game where we took some ill-advised shots and then they hit some shots. ... One of those games we missed a bunch of wide-open shots. [Against UCLA] it was defensive blunders.”
Krystkowiak inserted sophomore transfer Kolbe Caldwell into the starting lineup in place of senior Gabe Bealer in an attempt to spur a more crisp start on Thursday.
Bealer, who has started 14 of the 15 games he has played this season, had been a nonfactor in recent games. One of the Utes’ most accurate perimeter shooters (45.3 percent on 3-pointers), he scored six total points on a combined 2-of-9 shooting in games against Oregon and Oregon State. He played 14 minutes total against Arizona and Arizona State.
“Some teams are built on small forwards, and we’ve had breakdowns defensively,” Krysktowiak said. “We haven’t been very good offensively as well. Gabe was injured a little bit. It’s a situation where when you say why aren’t you starting off halves right — when you have defensive coverage breakdowns and even some offensive breakdowns, then it’s a situation where we’re going to give some other people a crack at it.”
Bealer acknowledged that he has fallen victim to mental lapses of late. He also admitted that he’s gotten caught thinking about one mistake several plays later, which has led to another missed assignment and compounded things.
Bealer did miss the Utes’ final nonconference game due to a hyperextended knee, but he pointed to his recent struggles as mental as opposed to physical.
“It just recently became a thing,” Bealer said. “I really don’t know. I just be in my head. I just got to get out of it, get out of this slump.”
Bealer scored eight points in 13 minutes off the bench on Thursday night. He acknowledged that he needs to do a better job contributing whether starting or coming off the bench.
“We come to the game and we’re down 10 points quick off the bat,” Bealer said. “Whatever energy I can bring, I got to try to do it.”
UTAH AT USC
Tipoff • Sunday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • ESPNU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 10-6, 2-3 Pac-12; USC 12-6, 3-2
Series history • Utah leads 22-17
About the Trojans • USC is coming off of a 70-58 win over Colorado on Thursday. USC held Colorado to 26.9 percent shooting from the field in the second half and 36.4 percent for the game. Senior point guard Jordan McLaughlin scored 20 points and made all four of his 3-point attempts. … USC has made 38.5 percent of its 3-pointers this season, the best percentage in the Pac-12. Eight times this season, USC has shot 40 percent or better from behind the arc. … USC coach Andy Enfield is 82-70 in five seasons with the program.
About the Utes • Utah has given up 80 points or more in each of its past three games. UCLA shot 52 percent from the field and made 12 of 23 3-pointers in Thursday’s 83-64 win against Utah. … Utes senior forward David Collette scored a team-high 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting against UCLA. Collete is averaging a team-high 13.9 points per game. He has shot 59.8 percent from the field. … Senior guard Justin Bibbins, one of two players to start all 16 games, has led the team in scoring (17 points per game) during Pac-12 play. He has shot 45.9 percent on 3-pointers during conference play.