(Updates. With AP Photos. )
By LYNN DeBRUIN
AP Sports Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The nasty chants that rained down on Jason Washburn during Utah's Pac-12 opener last week were hard to ignore.
Instead of being insulted, the Utes' 6-foot-10 center took them as a sign that his play was being noticed.
Considering how far Utah had fallen off the college basketball map last season during a 6-25 campaign, the razzing almost felt good.
"I wasn't going to jaw back with them," Washburn said of the rowdy Arizona State fans. "All I could do was hope my game silenced them. Obviously, we lost the game (in overtime) and they probably got the final laugh, but I took it as I was doing something right."
Now, after putting up big numbers in pushing ASU and No. 3 Arizona to the brink last weekend, Washburn needs a similar effort at home Thursday against high-scoring UCLA (12-3, 2-0), winner of seven straight.
It's a matchup of the Pac-12's top offense, led by freshman forward Shabazz Muhammad (19.6 points a game), and Utah's conference-best defense.
Washburn is a big part of that D, the lone holdover from the Jim Boylen era.
He had a 19-point, 18-rebound effort against the Sun Devils and blocked four shots. He followed that with a 17-point, 11-rebound effort against the Wildcats, with two blocks and a 3-pointer.
Washburn leads the league in rebounding, is second in blocks in conference play and is the inspirational leader on a defense that ranks first in the conference (seventh nationally) in field goal percentage (35.4) - up from 321st in the nation last season.
He has plenty of help from a revamped roster that includes freshman Jordan Loveridge (a team-leading 13 points and 7.6 rebounds per game), sophomore Dallin Bachynski and guards Aaron Dotson, Jarred DuBois, Cedric Martin and Glen Dean.
And the Utes have second-year coach Larry Krystkowiak preaching defense.
"A guy can have a night where he just can't hit a shot but defense can always be there. Defense travels with you," Washburn said.
That approach by Utah has resulted in slow-it-down games, including the 60-57 loss in Tucson on Saturday in which Arizona failed to score a basket in transition.
"It's not two teams running down, dunking on each other, but we feel it's the right way to play," said Washburn, who already has his education degree and wants to be a teacher. "I don't know how else you can explain us staying with the No. 3 team in the country."
Washburn acknowledges last year's team was so lacking in ability it probably had no right even winning six games. Credit Krystkowiak for making them believe they could.
Now Utah (8-6, 0-2) has surpassed the six wins with 16 games remaining on the regular-season schedule.
Thursday's "blackout game," where fans are encouraged to wear black, has brought excitement to the campus not seen since USC made its visit last fall to play Utah in football.
"The margin for error will be slimmer and we have to be ready to compete," Krystkowiak said. "Hopefully, people have something to cheer about."
There wasn't much last year, even though Washburn's game was beginning to take shape under Krystkowiak - once he finally accepted the coaching.
"I was a big Boylen fan, and when he (was fired), I was heartbroken," Washburn acknowledged. "Coach K never gave up on me. I saw that and respected him instantly."
He learned to move in Utah's motion offense, improved his decision-making and footwork in the post, and kept working on his defense and shooting.
This year he even accepted a move to the bench for nine games when Bachynski was lighting it up, and Washburn was finding early foul trouble.
The move jump-started Washburn's game.
"It was perceived as a little bit of a timeout," Krystkowiak said. "But he proved to me he was about Utah and it wasn't about him by the way he practiced and (his) emotions. He didn't take it as a demotion."
Since returning to the starting lineup, Washburn has averaged 15 points on 56 percent shooting.
"The past few games he lifted his level up and hopefully his curve is going up," Krystkowiak said.
The Utes still must learn to finish games, with their six losses by a combined 22 points.
The one common opponent UCLA and Utah have played is Cal State Northridge. The Bruins won 82-56, while Utah blew a 48-27 halftime lead and fell 76-71 at home.
"Guys are gaining some (pride), but the animal coming in here on Thursday is a little bit different than what we're used to," Krystkowiak said. "So we're going to have to be that much better."
Last year, the Utes lost to the Bruins 76-49 in Los Angeles. Consider it another part of the crazy road Washburn has endured - one that has seen him have 55 different teammates since he arrived in 2008.
"My time here has been so full of up and downs and rocky roads. All I want for myself and this team is to win and get this program going where I believe it can go," Washburn said.
A win over one of the most storied college programs would help.
"I don't want people to remember the losses and hard times, but the fact that I stuck with it as best I could and worked every offseason to improve," Washburn said. "My college career is 2 1/2 months away from being over. I'm going to try to make that the longest 2 1/2 months I humanly can."