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Utes keep themselves in middle of the Pac-12 race after routs of Stanford, Cal

Utah’s defensive focus must make the trip to Washington this week<br>

Utah guard Sedrick Barefield, left, lays the ball up as California center Kingsley Okoroh (22) defends during the second half during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In Colorado, the Utes endured a ghastly offensive performance in which almost none of the players looked like themselves. After almost a week off, they responded by forcing Stanford and California into similarly horrid nights.

Utah held consecutive opponents to 60 points or less and notched back-to-back wins by double-digit margins for the first time since the start of Pac-12 Conference play. Saturday night’s 34-point victory marked Utah’s largest spread in a win this season since it beat up Mississippi Valley State by 40 points on Nov. 13. Utah also held Cal to the fewest points of any of its opponents this season (43).

Not only did this past week’s games display a renewed devotion to defense, but they kept the Utes in the middle of the Pac-12 Conference standings.

The Utes (15-9, 7-6) will go on the road this week to play the Washington schools among a cluster of nine teams with between five and seven losses in conference. Some of those teams have played 12 conference games and others, like the Utes, have played 13.

“We’re excited,” senior point guard Justin Bibbins said. “We know we still have a good opportunity to make a run, and we’re confident. [We’re] just going into it one game at a time and approach each game with a defensive mentality. We’ll see where it takes us.”

The Utes play Washington (13-12, 7-5) on Thursday night in Seattle, followed by a clash with Washington State (9-14, 1-10) on Saturday night in Pullman, Wash. The Utes swept a weekend set against the teams in Salt Lake City last month.

If nothing else, this week’s games afforded the Utes the ability to hit the road relatively well-rested. The Utes were so comfortably ahead Saturday night that senior forward David Collette spent the final 14 minutes on the bench, senior forward Tyler Rawson rested his legs for the final 12 minutes and Bibbins, who leads the team in minutes played, handed over the controls for nearly the final seven minutes.

The Utes, who played seven of their first 11 conference games on the road, will play their last three games at home after the Washington road trip. According to Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak, his team spent 15 of 35 nights in hotels from late December until recently.

“With the conference schedule set up and some Sundays, you get a little bit weary on the road,” Krystkowiak said. “I think we got a chance to come back here and kind of unpack your shaving kit for a minute. We have five of our last seven at home, which gives you a chance to catch your breath.

“Certainly, not playing Sunday games and having the single Colorado game, it’s like ‘Wow. We get a day off after the game and maybe before the game.’”

Having had the chance to come up for air, the Utes will now turn their attention to the old adage about defense traveling even if offense can be fickle.

The Utes scored 19 points off of Cal turnovers on Saturday night, and Bibbins referred to a “shift” in focus to defense in practice during the week leading up to the game. The loss in Colorado certainly provided a vivid example of how offensive struggles can put pressure on a team’s defense.

“The focus needs to be on defense,” Rawson said after this week’s sweep. “We did a great job defending both teams. When we did that, things flowed freely. We were able to get out in transition and make easy shots on the other end. It’s definitely depressing for the other team when shots aren’t falling and you’ve got to go back and play defense.”

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