A lot of basketball players get so comfortable wearing a protective mask, usually for a fractured nose, that they continue to wear it even though their injury has healed.

Runnin’ Utes forward Mikael Jantunen is not one of those players. The sophomore from Helsinki, Finland, will scrap his clear mask the first chance he gets, which for him is Saturday, Jan. 23.

“I have to wear it for four weeks, so my time is almost over,” Jantunen said in Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. “It is going to be up on some kind of shelf. I am not going to keep wearing it.”

“I have to wear it for four weeks, so my time is almost over. It is going to be up on some kind of shelf. I am not going to keep wearing it.” — Utah basketball player Mikael Jantunen

Even with the mask, which he began wearing in practice shortly after Christmas, Jantunen is quietly putting together a solid second season in Salt Lake City.

“It is not awful to play with, but I do like to play without it way more,” he said. “It is kinda hot playing with it, and it is not the most comfortable thing.”

Jantunen, who is averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, will wear the mask when the Utes (5-6, 2-5 Pac-12) play at Washington State (9-4, 2-4) on Thursday, but doesn’t expect to be wearing it Sunday at Washington.

After taking Sunday off following Saturday’s disappointing 72-63 loss to Cal in which they blew a 12-point halftime lead, the Utes returned to practice Monday vowing to stay unified and hungry, Jantunen said. 

Utes on the air

Utah (5-6, 2-5)

at Washington State (9-4, 2-4)

Thursday, 8 p.m. MST

Beasley Coliseum, Pullman, Washington

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: 700 AM

“We have shown that we can play great basketball,” he said. “Now we just gotta do it for 40 minutes. We have to stay locked in, stay together as a team and just grind it out. We have a group of players that can do it and can figure it out.”

As has been well-documented, Utah hasn’t had a Pac-12 road win since Feb. 23, 2019, a 92-79 breakthrough at WSU. They lost 71-63 at Colorado a week later, went 0-9 in conference road games last year, then started league play this season with losses at UCLA and USC.

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That means the conference road losing skid is 12 games heading into the best opportunity to end it, considering WSU and UW are at the bottom of the Pac-12 standings.

“I feel that the biggest thing is we have to stay locked in on defense,” Jantunen said. “If we struggle to score in the second half, our defense has to be top-notch. And if our offense struggles, we can’t let that affect our defense.”

He said if the Utes’ offense catches up with the defense for 40 minutes, “we are going to start winning a lot of games.”

Jantunen leads the Pac-12 in field goal shooting percentage (63.6%), a mark that would put him 12th-best in the country if he had enough attempts to qualify.

Does he need to shoot more for a team that has only two double-digit scorers — Timmy Allen at 17.3 and Alfonso Plummer at 13.0 — and hits scoring lulls once or twice a game?

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“I know my field goal percentage is pretty good,” he said. “That’s because I do get a lot of easy looks. I don’t want to force it, but at the same time I gotta start being more aggressive on offense and at least see how long I can make it with this good of a percentage.”

Allen is No. 5 in the league in scoring, while freshman Pelle Larsson is second in free-throw shooting percentage (92%) having gone 23 of 25 from the line.

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Sophomore Rylan Jones is No. 7 in the league in assists (4.1) and his 3.46 assist-to-turnover ratio is third in the Pac-12 and ranks 18th nationally.

Winter semester classes started up Tuesday, so the Utes will be busier away from the court than they have been for nearly a month, but Jantunen said that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some players have in-person classes, but the majority have online-only classes or classes that meet only on Zoom.

“You are pretty used to going to school and combining basketball and stuff, so I don’t think it is going to be that big of a change,” he said. “It was nice to have a little bit of a vacation, but now we are just back to the normal life.”

And for him, back to playing basketball without that dang mask.

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