Both Gach is back and the Utes hope he returns to form quickly

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Both Gach (11) passes the ball as the University of Utah hosts Oregon State, NCAA men's basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

Both Gach spoke with a reporter late Tuesday afternoon, his first interview since Jan. 12, following a 39-point loss at Colorado.

A lot has transpired in those 37 days — for the Utes and for this dynamic sophomore guard.

His team remain winless on the road in Pac-12 play, but continues to play lights out at home, where they are 10-1 and hosting UCLA on Thursday evening (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1). Some of those road losses were blowouts, some of those home wins were exhilarating.

A right knee injury kept Gach from some of them. He missed four games across nine days, from Jan. 30 at UCLA to Feb. 8 vs. Cal. He’s back in the starting lineup, back addressing questions from reporters and that means he’s talking about what kept him out and what it means going forward.

“Those games, I just decided to take off, rest my knee, do the treatment that I needed so I could get back,” Gach told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I needed to start getting better and I’m back now.

“I still have to do treatment, but I feel good right now. I don’t think it was anything that was going to keep me out for a long time.”

When exactly this knee injury occurred or when it was diagnosed is unclear, but Gach played 26 minutes in a 76-64 win over Washington State on Jan. 25. On Jan. 30 at USC, Gach warmed up, but did not play. He did the same Feb. 2 at UCLA, saying Tuesday that his normal lateral movement and explosiveness were not there.

Gach had an MRI in the early going, his summation of that being the bones in the knee were tender. He said there is no ligament or structural damage.

This knee injury could be the byproduct of Osgood-Schlatter disease, which Gach says he suffered from between eighth grade and his sophomore year of high school. Osgood-Schlatter, which cost Gach three weeks at one point in his high school career, causes knee pain in growing adolescents, and is generally associated with growth spurts. Early in Gach’s teenage years, he shot up five or six inches and currently stands 6-foot-6.

Things were already trending up when Gach played last Thursday night at Oregon State. He came off the bench for 22 minutes in Corvallis, then rejoined the starting lineup and played 24 minutes at Oregon.

“I feel like I’m getting back,” Gach said. “When I was out for two weeks, I didn’t even really play basketball, so I’m trying to get my mojo back, my confidence back, trying to be aggressive whenever I get a chance to be.”

Before the injury, Gach was already mired in a horrid offensive slump. In the five games before the injury, Gach averaged 4.2 points on 21.6% shooting, while hitting 2-for-22 from 3-point range.

Those figures are far lower than Gach averaged in some big games earlier this season. In three of Utah’s best wins this season, at Nevada, vs. Minnesota, and vs. then-No. 6 Kentucky in Las Vegas, Gach averaged 18.3 points on 52.9 percent shooting and 47 percent from 3-point range.

And beyond those stats, when Gach is at full strength, he is one Utah’s two-best perimeter defenders, the other being Timmy Allen.

As the Utes’ season continues to have radical peaks and valleys, it isn’t breaking news that this team could use a healthy Gach with the Pac-12 tournament three weeks away. So what does he need to do to return to form?

“There’s one answer to that, get in the gym,” Gach said. “Get the reps in, get the mental toughness up.

“I’ve had some ups and downs. Had some bad games, had some good games against Nevada, Minnesota, Kentucky. I need to do better for this team. To get where we want to be, we need guys to perform up to their capabilities, and that includes me.”

UCLA at Utah

At Huntsman Center

Tipoff: Thursday, 8:30 p.m.

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: 700 AM

Series history: Tied, 8-8

Last meeting: UCLA, 73-57 (2020)

About the Bruins: UCLA has been one of the bigger surprises in the Pac-12 this season, sitting at 8-5 and right in the middle of the race for a top-four seed and accompanying bye at the Pac-12 Tournament next month in Las Vegas. … The Bruins have won three straight and five of six, a streak that includes a 73-57 decision over Utah on Feb. 2. Most recently, they swept the Washington schools last weekend. … Chris Smith has grown into one of the Pac-12 most-versatile talents. He leads UCLA in scoring at 13.3 points per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds per contest, second on the Bruins behind Jalen Hill (7.0 RPG).

About the Utes: For as much as Utah has struggled on the road this season, it has been equally as good at the Huntsman Center, where it is 10-1. Most recently at home, the Utes swept the Bay Area schools, Stanford and Cal, on Feb. 6 and 8, respectively. … The Utes are coming off getting swept at the Oregon schools, 70-51 at Oregon State on Thursday and 80-62 at then-No. 17 Oregon on Sunday night. Those two losses put the Utes at 0-7 in Pac-12 road games. … In the first meeting against UCLA, Utah shot just 9 for 27 in the first half, including 1 for 12 from 3-point range. It finished at 39.3 percent shooting for the afternoon. … Utah remains in the postseason mix, specifically the NIT. UCLA represents a Quadrant 3 opportunity for the Utes. A win would do little to affect Utah’s resume, but a loss to a Quadrant 3 opponent would do damage to it. Utah is 3-2 this season against Quadrant 3 teams.