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Utah basketball: Mikael Jantunen returning to Utes, just not in time to help against Oregon on Saturday

Having lost two straight, Utes will look to get back on track against the Ducks, who have won 18 of 20 Pac-12 matchups with Utah dating back to the 2011-12 season

Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) and Stanford Cardinal forward Brandon Angel (23) compete for the ball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The Utes won 79-65.
Utah Utes forward Mikael Jantunen (20) and Stanford Cardinal forward Brandon Angel (23) compete for the ball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. The Utes won 79-65.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

This maddening, somewhat perplexing habit the University of Utah men’s basketball team has this season of beating teams it seemingly shouldn’t be able to hang with and losing to teams it is favored to handle will be put to the test again Saturday night.

Having played its poorest game of the season Thursday in a baffling 74-56 loss to Oregon State, Utah faces red-hot Oregon at 7 p.m. MST at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.

The Ducks have won four of their last five games, including a 60-56 win over Colorado Thursday night, and are in third place in the Pac-12 standings.

Don’t put it past these Utes (9-9, 6-8) to give Oregon (13-4, 8-3) all it wants, if their pattern that has come to define the 2020-21 season holds true.

Utah is in eighth place in the Pac-12.

“We have played Oregon once before (this season),” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “It has never really been so much about the Xs and Os and the plays, but it is about some elite athletes, and Dana (Altman) does a good job of putting them in positions to succeed. There are a lot of facets to it to win a basketball game (against Oregon).”

That’s true even though Oregon has mostly owned the Utes since they joined the Pac-12 in 2011. Oregon has won 18 of 20 conference matchups, and six straight.

“There are elite players at every position,” Krystkowiak said. “… I just know we are going to have to be ready.”

The Ducks beat the Utes 79-73 at the Huntsman Center on Jan. 9, but that doesn’t tell half the story. Utah led 43-33 at halftime — displaying that “we can beat anybody” form — then started turning the ball over like it was an invitation to a Provo dance party, gave up 22 points off turnovers in the second half and suffered the deflating defeat.

Junior guard Will Richardson, out after surgery for a fractured thumb in early December, didn’t play in that game for the Ducks. He returned in February and is averaging 11.8 points per game in five games.

“He is a dynamic player and gives them one more terrific offensive weapon, and he is a real active defender as well, and a guy that’s got some experience,” Krystkowiak said.

Timmy Allen scored 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting in that one, while Mikael Jantunen added 20 points and seven rebounds. Jantunen won’t be available Saturday for the third-straight game because he’s jetting back from Europe, having helped the Finnish national team defeat Switzerland early Friday morning.

Point guard Rylan Jones had eight assists in that game nearly six weeks ago against Oregon, but he is questionable with a sore shoulder in Eugene. The Utes could have used their floor leader Thursday against the Beavers, having committed 20 turnovers.

“I have never had a problem with a team beating us,” Krystkowiak said, “but I really feel like a lot of this is self-inflicted right now. We are doing a pretty good job of beating ourselves, and that can’t happen.”

It was the third time Utah has lost by 18 points this season, but the other two blowout losses — 82-64 at BYU and 64-46 at USC — were to teams likely headed to the NCAA Tournament. Oregon State does not fit that description.

Allen said it is not time to panic. He repeated his January statements that Utah can play with anybody, or lose to anybody. That’s just the nature of this team, which relies on the hot-and-cold outside shooting of senior guard Alfonso Plummer and a freshman point guard — Pelle Larsson — when Jones is out.

“There are ups and downs throughout every season,” Allen said. “My focus is to not get too high or too low. … We can’t dwell on it. We have a really good team in Oregon coming up in the next couple of days. This is a big stretch for us. We know this. We are still in the fight within the conference standings, so I am going to keep playing, I am going to keep leading, I am going to keep believing. I have no other option. We have a lot of fight left in us.”

Utah endured a stretch of more than seven minutes without scoring in the second half vs. OSU. Obviously, such a drought would be devastating against the more powerful Ducks.

“Our margin for error isn’t big enough for us to be able to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Allen said.

Utah has generally shot the ball well this season but has struggled the past two games, both losses. Krystkowiak said Utah has “weak links” on offense and said one player, without naming him, “was out in left field” on some possessions. He said the Utes “looked scared” at times.

“We have to check far more boxes, whether it is defensive energy, rebounding energy, sharing the ball, whatever,” Krystkowiak said. “One of the simplest things — it is never an excuse, but it has to do with whether you win a game — is when you have open shots that you work hard to get, (you) have to make them.”

Adding to Utah’s mountain to climb: Oregon has a deserved reputation for playing well in February and March. The Ducks went 34-13 in the four previous seasons from Feb. 1 through the Pac-12 tournament, according to Jon Wilner of the Mercury News.

Jantunen rejoining Utes soon

The Utes received some good news earlier Friday when Jantunen’s Finnish national team qualified for EuroBasket 2022 and released him to rejoin the Utes.

The victory means the Finns qualified for the European Championships next year and Jantunen “will be on one of the first flights back, so he will be back sometime tomorrow,” Krystkowiak said.

Whether he can play next Thursday when the Utes host UCLA could depend on COVID-19 quarantine rules. Per the CDC, people returning from Europe should quarantine seven days upon arriving back in the United States.

“I don’t know (if Jantunen can play Thursday),” Krystkowiak said. “Those are medical questions that we are going to address through a bunch of testing that is taking place both on their end and our end, and we will wait to hear on that.”

Utah (9-9, 6-8) at Oregon (13-4, 8-3)

Saturday, 7 p.m. MST

Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Oregon

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: 700 AM