There are a lot of reasons why the Runnin’ Utes have lost their last three games.

The most obvious is the schedule has turned more difficult: Oregon, UCLA and USC are among the Pac-12’s top teams.

Another reason is that the outstanding defense Utah played in November and December didn’t travel to Los Angeles all that well, particularly when 7-foot rim protector Branden Carlson wasn’t in the lineup against the league-leading and now-No. 5 Bruins.

“I was so proud of him. We have coached him for a year and a half now, and have seen a lot of very good, amazing performances. I am not so sure that (USC game) wasn’t his best one when you consider everything that goes into it.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on Branden Carlson

“I was really disappointed in both games just how we played defensively,” coach Craig Smith said. “We allowed both those teams — UCLA and USC — to score well over a point a possession. And we allowed both those teams to get over 40% of their missed shots. And so that is a bad combination.”

Then there is Utah’s shooting. It has never been spectacular, but it has progressively gone downhill since the Utes shot 51.6% in the first half against Oregon State on Jan. 5 in an eventual 79-60 victory at the Huntsman Center.

“It is going to be hard to beat a good team when you shoot the way we did (in Los Angeles),” Smith said. “… Our offense has been a little bit hit and miss, depending on the night, which can happen through the course of a season.

“But the two things we have been really able to hang our hat on, is how we guard and how we have been an elite rebounding team on both sides, but especially on defense.”

The Utes shot 35.7% against Oregon, 36.7% against UCLA and 34.4% against USC in losing those three games by a combined 44 points. Their season average is 45.4%.

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Utah is an above-average 3-point shooting team, with a season 3-point shooting percentage of 34.5% (121 of 351). But the Utes were 3 of 21 against Oregon, 6 of 19 against UCLA and 8 of 25 against USC.

That kind of long-range shooting isn’t going to win a lot of Pac-12 games, especially on the road.

Smith concluded that the Utes “regressed” last weekend in several areas, while acknowledging the upper-tier Pac-12 teams had something to do with that.

The good news for the Utes is that they play in the Huntsman Center this week, against teams that are certainly more beatable than the Ducks, Bruins and Trojans.

Utah (12-7, 5-3) plays host to much improved Washington State (9-10, 4-4) on Thursday night and so-so Washington (11-8, 3-5) on Saturday night.

“Obviously we gotta find a way to make some shots,” Smith said. “That will also help the cause.”

Then again, nothing comes easy for this group, which needs more help from its bench and better production from its starters not named Branden Carlson.

Runnin’ Utes on the air

Washington State (9-10, 4-4)
at Utah (12-7, 5-3)
Thursday, 7 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700

“If you are looking for bright spots, obviously BC played outstanding against USC (after missing the UCLA game with an illness),” Smith said. “I was so proud of him. We have coached him for a year and a half now, and have seen a lot of very good, amazing performances. I am not so sure that (USC game) wasn’t his best one when you consider everything that goes into it.”

Smith also praised freshman Wilguens Exacte for his play off the bench. He had six points against UCLA and seven against USC.

Smith said there have been “quite a few meetings” with players this week, “to make sure guys understand what their jobs are, and role definition, and things that we gotta bring to the table consistently to get where we gotta go, and not forget who we are, and our identity.”

That’s won’t be easy Thursday, because Wazzu has won three straight Pac-12 games, and four of its last five. The Cougars will be seeking some revenge, having lost 67-65 in overtime to Utah at Beasley Coliseum on Dec. 4.

“They are good,” Smith said. “When we played them up there in December they had a couple guys out. They have been unfortunate and there was some lack of continuity with some injuries. They are finally, for the most part, healthy.”

Washington State makes 8.9 3-pointers per game, best in the Pac-12, so Utah’s 3-point shooting defense will be tested. The Utes are seventh nationally in field goal percentage defense and 10th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense.

“I expect it to be a physical, rugged game,” Smith said.