Having played three teams the past eight days that have been ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll — and another above-average team on the road — all without best player Branden Carlson, the hard-luck Utah Runnin’ Utes can hardly be blamed for their losing streak hitting eight games.

But that doesn’t mean new coach Craig Smith has to like it, or even accept it.

“I hate losing more than anything in this world,” the coach said Saturday night after the No. 16 USC Trojans rolled past the Utes 79-67 in front of 7,846 fans at the Huntsman Center in a Pac-12 game that didn’t seem that close.

The look on Smith’s face showed he meant it. Utah fell to 8-12 overall, 1-9 in Pac-12 play and remained at the bottom of the league standings.

The Trojans (16-2, 6-2) completed a sweep of the mountain schools, having won a close one at Colorado Thursday.

“I am not saying (USC’s Drew Peterson) is Scottie Pippen, but he has that type of game. That dude is good.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

Not since 2012, their first season in the Pac-12, have the Utes lost eight straight games, although help could be on the way.

Smith said the 7-foot Carlson, recovering from an appendectomy, could return next week when the Utes play at Washington State and Washington.

Then again, the team’s leading scorer might not return until Utah plays at Colorado on Feb. 12, Smith said, perhaps trying to dampen expectations.

In other words, fans should probably get used to some rocky times the next two weeks, and the losing streak could get even bigger.

“We need to play well, and it would be nice to get a dub,” Smith said, insisting that hope is not lost.

Actually, the Utes do seem to be improving. They took a mild step back Saturday after pushing No. 9 UCLA to the wire in a 63-58 loss on Thursday, but the effort was still there.

Smith said the Utes looked “sluggish” in their fourth game in eight days.

And USC is probably a tougher matchup for Utah than UCLA and Arizona are, for whatever reason. Consider that the Trojans crushed the Utes 93-73 in Los Angeles back on Dec. 1.

Utah was much more competitive 52 days later.

“We are night and day (better) compared to that team that lost by 20,” Smith said.

And another thing that will play well in some parts of Los Angeles better than others, or in Tucson, for that matter: Smith says USC could win the national championship, something he didn’t utter after the Utes lost 82-64 at No. 6 Arizona on Jan. 15 or to the Bruins two nights ago.

“I mean, that team that can win it all,” Smith said. “Because of, like I said, their rim protection, the way they rebound.

“I think they are so high-level on the defensive end, and then they are so efficient on the offensive end. They can do it in so many ways.”

Saturday, Drew Peterson, the 6-foot-9 guard who transferred from Rice, via Libertyville, Illinois, was a perfect 5 of 5 on his 3-point attempts, and missed just one shot from the field in racking up a game-high 23 points.

The Utes had no answer for him.

“I am not saying (Peterson) is Scottie Pippen, but he has that type of game,” Smith said. “That dude is good.”

So are Chevez Goodwin (nine points), Isaiah Mobley (10), Boogie Ellis (18) and Max Agbonkpolo (seven).

But on this day, Peterson stole the show from his more-ballyhooed teammates. 

“USC is a very, very good basketball team,” Smith said. “There is nothing they don’t have. They have great point guard play, great athleticism up and down the lineup, elite size and versatility.

“They just play a lot of different ways,” he continued. “When you make mistakes, they make you pay. It is just very difficult to score on those guys in the paint.”

Indeed, the Trojans outscored the Utes 40-20 in the paint and outrebounded them 42-31 inside.

“To even (be competitive) you gotta make some 3s, and we did make some 3s, but not enough of them,” Smith said.

Perhaps the game, from Utah’s perspective, will be referred to in the future as freshman guard Gabe Madsen’s coming-out party.

He was 5 of 11 from 3-point range, including some circus shots from the deep corner, fading away, that found nothing but net.

The Cincinnati transfer finished with a career-high 20 points in 23 minutes.

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“Gabe was really good all weekend,” Smith said. “I mean, 6 for 12 from the field (Saturday). He hit some big ones that kinda got us back into it in the first half when we made our big run.

“That dude just knows how to play.”

Madsen hit a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left in the first half to send the Utes into the locker room trailing just 35-30.

And when Marco Anthony made two free throws seconds into the second half, Utah was within three.

But that’s as close as the Utes would get. The Trojans got a triple from Peterson that ignited a 21-6 run and dashed the Utes’ upset hopes.

USC led by as many as 18, but the Utes never threw in the proverbial towel. The group is still fighting to the bitter end, which most teams on long losing streaks at this juncture of the season generally don’t do.

Dusan Mahorcic’s 17-footer trimmed USC’s lead to 65-56 with just over five minutes left, but Agbonkpolo beat the tired Utes down the floor for a lob dunk and Trojans coasted from there.

“It didn’t feel like we were only down by nine. It felt like more,” Smith said. “We were just kinda being in a dangerous spot for them. I am not sure they felt uncomfortable.”

Speaking of uncomfortable, that’s how things are getting with Utes guard David Jenkins Jr., the UNLV transfer who was supposed to be one of the team’s top scorers this season.

Jenkins played only 2 minutes, 59 seconds, missed the only shot he attempted, committed a foul and had a turnover.

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He was held scoreless for the second-straight game for the first time in his college career. The Utes were minus-11 when he was on the floor.

“I thought our young guys played very, very well,” Smith said, crediting walk-on Eli Ballstaedt (career-high six points and one assist in a career-high 15 minutes) and Jaxon Brenchley for sparking the Utes off the bench for the second straight game.

“Our veteran guys need to be better for us if we are going to beat a team of this caliber,” he concluded.

A team that he believes could be holding the gold trophy the first weekend of April.

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