Utah isn’t the only Pac-12 team struggling on the road. But the Utes need solutions soon

Washington State forward Isaac Jones eyes the basket, next to Utah forward Ben Carlson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Pullman, Wash.
Washington State forward Isaac Jones eyes the basket, next to Utah forward Ben Carlson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Pullman, Wash. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

Utah will hit the midseason point in Pac-12 Conference play on Saturday with a game at Washington, and as of right now, the team’s NCAA resume is looking just fine.

The Runnin’ Utes have three wins over Quad 1 opponents (including wins over No. 5 BYU, at No. 18 Saint Mary’s and vs. No. 46 Wake Forest) and don’t have any damaging losses against Quad 3 or Quad 4 opponents.

The biggest issue right now — and it’s becoming a larger problem as time goes on — is the Utes’ inability to win on the road in conference play.

Utah is the only Pac-12 team with a winning conference record that doesn’t have a road victory so far this season.

“You have to eliminate losing to win, no matter where you play, but especially on the road,” Utah coach Craig Smith said after the Utes’ 79-57 loss at Washington State on Wednesday that dropped his team to 0-4 on the road in league action.

Only two other conference schools — Oregon State and USC, who are both 2-6 in league action — also haven’t won on the road in Pac-12 play.

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For Utah, it’s been a combination of things fueling the road record.

In the first two losses at Arizona State and Arizona, transition points and turnovers were big issues.

In losses at Stanford and Washington State, struggling to get stops, rebounding and injuries were among the culprits.

Washington State also had a notable advantage in free-throw shooting. The Cougars made 16 of 24, while Utah was just 3 of 7.

“Seven free throws is pretty ridiculous. We need to do a better job of just getting downhill and getting fouled,” Utah guard Gabe Madsen said.

Now, Utah (14-6, 5-4 Pac-12) faces the prospect of not having three key players available due to injury.

Guard Rollie Worster and center Lawson Lovering have already been out for nearly two weeks, and on Wednesday in the Utes’ loss to the Cougars, Deivon Smith left with a lower leg injury.

“We’re obviously pretty thin right now, but we got to figure it out.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

Smith has continued to improve since becoming eligible in mid-December and had shined in the starting lineup after taking over for an ailing Worster.

Worster and Lovering, too, provide a veteran presence on both ends that is tough to replicate.

There is no clear answer right now when any one of the three might return.

“We’re obviously pretty thin right now, but we got to figure it out,” Utah’s coach said.

Up next is Washington in another late Saturday night matchup (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2).

The Huskies (11-9, 3-6 Pac-12) are struggling entering the contest and most recently lost by 17 at home to Colorado.

When the two teams met at the end of December, Utah trailed by as many as 12 before rallying behind a career-high 34 points from fifth-year senior Branden Carlson.

Due to injury struggles — the team has only six healthy players who are averaging 18 or more minutes per game — Utah may need another effort like that from Carlson and company to get past a Huskies team that has lost three of its past four.

Utes on the air

Utah (14-6, 5-4 Pac-12) at Washington (11-9, 3-6 Pac-12)

Saturday, 8 p.m. MST

Alaska Airlines Arena (Seattle)

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 700 AM

Utah isn’t the only Pac-12 school struggling on the road this season — it’s a common theme for most programs in the final year these 12 schools will be in a conference together.

Two other Pac-12 contenders, Arizona and Colorado, have also had their road struggles so far in league play. Both teams are just 1-3 on the road thus far and each has a head-scratching loss.

Colorado lost at California, predicted to finish last in the league, on Jan. 10 as part of a three-game slide.

Then on Thursday night, Oregon State stunned No. 9 Arizona 73-70, as Jordan Pope’s 3-pointer at the buzzer won the game for a Beavers team that’s won just twice in league play.

“I thought we had opportunities to take control of the game. We just didn’t take enough advantage of that. When you play on the road and let a team hang close, you’re playing with fire,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd told reporters after the loss.

Arizona forward Keshad Johnson (16) looks to pass the ball as Oregon State forward Michael Rataj (12) and guard Christian Wright (1) defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Corvallis, Ore. Oregon State won 83-80. | Amanda Loman, Associated Press
Arizona forward Keshad Johnson (16) looks to pass the ball as Oregon State forward Michael Rataj (12) and guard Christian Wright (1) defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Corvallis, Ore. Oregon State won 83-80. | Amanda Loman, Associated Press

What does that all mean for Utah?

At least in the conference race, the Utes aren’t out of it, and that’s thanks in part to other top teams’ struggles on the road.

Utah currently finds itself a game and a half back of league-leading Oregon, a team the Utes beat at the Huntsman Center last Sunday.

The Ducks are one of three teams — along with Arizona State and Stanford — who are .500 or better on the road in league play.

The Cardinal, at 2-1, are the only one who have a winning road record so far, and even then, their lone road loss came at struggling USC.

That all adds up to Utah still having time to contend for a top four seed, or better, in the Pac-12 tournament in March, if the Runnin’ Utes can turn around their road woes and continue to win at home (the Utes are 11-0 at the Huntsman Center this season).

If it doesn’t happen soon, though, it’s worrisome: Utah will play five of its final seven regular-season games on the road.

Saturday’s game at Washington, followed by a three-game home stand against Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado, are the only remaining contests before that stretch.

“Everybody talks about winning on the road is different than winning at home but at the end of the day we’re a mature group, we’re an old group,” Madsen said. “That shouldn’t be an excuse, and we’ve just got to be better.”