SALT LAKE CITY — The Runnin' Utes have a message for fans concerned about their 7-7 start and four-game losing skid.

"Don't lose faith. Keep watching us. None of us are discouraged, and the coaches are not discouraged," said sophomore center Jason Washburn. "We're going to keep pushing and we're going to make a good, strong conference run."

The latter begins Wednesday at Air Force.

"It's conference time, 0-0 for everybody, and that's the way we're going to look at it," Washburn continued. "That's how we're going to prepare for Air Force."

Monday's practice at the Huntsman Center was upbeat, even though head coach Jim Boylen and his positive energy was absent while attending to a personal matter.

"Hey, this team is getting better. It's going to get better and we're going to continue to compete and fight right until the very end," assistant coach Jeff Smith said when asked what his message to Utah fans would be. "Sometime, hopefully in the middle, late part of March, we're in the NCAA Tournament."

The Utes, obviously, have high expectations for Mountain West Conference play and want their fans to know it.

"Don't worry. We're going to get it together. This is a little setback," junior forward Will Clyburn said of his message to the fans. "We're a young group. We're learning still and we're going to come out the rest of the year and get these wins."

There's no looking back, he added, all focus is on MWC play.

After Wednesday's opener at Air Force, the Utes return home to face nationally ranked league foes BYU and San Diego State.

Clyburn acknowledged it's a tough stretch, but he's confident Utah can compete.

"We've got as much talent as anybody in the league, in my opinion," Clyburn said. "We've just got to play together, keep learning and keep doing the stuff that our coaches are telling us to do."

WATKINS WILL PLAY: Team captain Jay Watkins, who has been hampered by back problems, has no plans to be sidelined down the stretch of his senior year.

"I'm doing everything I can with the trainers to feel better and be in the position to play," he said. "I'm going to play."

Shaking off a nagging injury, Watkins knows, is tough to do in the midst of a season.

"It's just a day-to-day thing. It doesn't matter if I'm 100 percent or not. I'm still going to play," he said. "I'm still going to be there to support my team and lead my team. That's the only thing that matters to me."

Watkins has appeared in 12 games this season, starting in nine, while averaging 8.9 points and 4.9 rebounds.

DETERMINED MINDSET: Smith re-emphasized that the team's mindset is firmly focused on coming in each day and getting better — even through recent struggles.

"This team continues to listen; they continue to try and learn; they continue to try and grow," Smith said. "Coach (Boylen) has done an unbelievable job of just staying the course and making it our goal that we try to get better every single day."

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com