Last year, 7-foot center Branden Carlson and his University of Utah basketball teammates relished road trips, even when the Utes were failing to win a Pac-12 game away from the friendly confines of the Huntsman Center.

This year, not so much. Blame it on COVID-19.

That’s true even though the Utes (8-7, 5-6) are a respectable 2-3 in conference road games this season, having lost at UCLA, USC and Washington and having defeated Washington State and Colorado at their venues.

Utah (8-7, 5-6)
at California (7-14, 2-12)

Thursday, 4 p.m. MST

Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, California

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: 700 AM

Because of the pandemic, the games are played in empty arenas, and most players have said they would rather play in front of hostile fans than none at all.

But the primary reason the Utes aren’t enjoying away games as much is because the typical team-bonding activities before or in between games aren’t happening this year.

“We don’t really go out,” Carlson said. “You just sit in your hotel room, or go watch film. You take dinner back to your room, instead of eating as a team. We are just taking the extra precautions as much as we can.”

Having won back-to-back league games for the first time this season — victories over Colorado and Arizona — Utah hits the road again this week and next, traveling to states where the coronavirus restrictions are tighter than at home: California and Oregon.

The Utes play at Cal (7-14, 2-12) at 4 p.m. MST Thursday hoping to make amends for that frustrating 72-63 loss to the Golden Bears at home on Jan. 16. They stay in the Bay Area and play at Stanford on Saturday (8 p.m. MST). Both games will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.

Cal has lost six straight and hasn’t tasted victory since it came from 12 points behind at halftime to surprise the Utes at the Huntsman Center. Leading scorer Matt Bradley, who prepped at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah, missed the Utah game and several others, but is back and has averaged 19.4 points since his return.

“We didn’t see him the first time. He seems healthy to me, and he is playing with a lot of confidence and he plays extremely hard,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said of Bradley. “He has a football player-type stature, and everything is full speed ahead (with him), and it is going to be physical. He not only has the ability to put up some points, but he is a real solid defender as well.”

Four Bears reached double figures in Salt Lake City, led by senior Grant Anticevich with 14 points and seven rebounds.

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Utah’s four-game road swing continues next week at Oregon State (Feb. 18) and Oregon (Feb. 20). Carlson said Tuesday the Utes are confident that they have turned the corner on an up-and-down season and can make some noise the remainder of the month. 

And they’ve gotten used to the pandemic-altered traveling routine.

“When we travel, we pretty much just stay in our hotels with our roommates that we are assigned to room with (that week),” Carlson said. “We get roomed with people who have had COVID, and those who haven’t had COVID get roomed together. We do stuff like that to keep each other as safe as we can.”

As far as team unity and bonding are concerned, Carlson says the lack of team meals and group activities together isn’t hurting the Utes. But it isn’t helping them, either.

“We are all pretty close,” said the only player on the team who is married. “We all communicate. We all still hang out when we can.”

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Krystkowiak says the Utes are “fortunate” to have only a few new players on the team this year, and they joined a group that has a sense of camaraderie and looking out for each other. He said the Utes have done a lot of team building in practice and Zoom sessions.

“You get on the road, and obviously I am not blind to college and parties and the social aspect and all the interaction and the opportunities for our guys to get closer,” he said. “But you know, we have a pretty tightknit group as it is. We’ve got three guys living together in one house and five guys living in another house. … We have made the most of it.”

The coach said he feels badly for the players, who have had to endure this pandemic-truncated season and all the trials the virus has forced upon them.

“I see college was being a special window of fun in their lives, and a time that you can’t get back,” Krystkowiak said. “But we will make the most of it right now. A lot of it is going to come down to trying to win games (to make it better).”