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Jason Washburn still clowns with his teammates. He still has the same sense of humor, is still playful on and off the court.

But the Utah center's game, often maligned in previous seasons, has finally taken on a serious tone.

And just in the nick of time. The 6-foot-11 senior holds the key to the Utes' basketball success this season. He's the team's biggest threat in the low post, a guy with a variety of moves in the paint and a soft touch around the hoop. He's also being counted on to anchor the Utes' defense around the basket and, perhaps most importantly, is expected to help lead a still very young team and program.

It's quite a jump from Washburn's days under former Utah coach Jim Boylen, when he was considered moody, immature and inconsistent. You would be hard-pressed to find a more criticized Ute over the last five years.

Washburn has endured it all, and considers himself stronger because of it.

"It's taken a lot for me to break old habits," Washburn said his week. "When I look at last year, when I finally gave in and accepted what coach [Larry] Krystkowiak was trying to do, I think my game took off. I give a lot of credit to coach. He never gave up on me, even when I fought him on a lot of what he was doing."

Washburn is probably the one player who wishes last season — a 6-25 debacle — never ended. He scored 11 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked five shots in the Pac-12 tournament loss to Colorado that brought 2011 to a close.

Washburn was in the gym the next day.

"Most guys at the end of the year take a few weeks off," Krystkowiak said. "I think Jason kind of wished that the season wasn't over when it was because it kind of all started to come together for him. We're looking for him to continue that, because we really believe that he made great strides in the final month for us."

Washburn simply saw more success as the year went on. He averaged 15 points in the Utes' last seven games, reaching double figures in each outing. He dropped a season-high 26 on Oregon in the regular-season finale.

Finally, he was moving without the ball in Krystkowiak's motion offense. Once he did, and started getting himself into the right spots, Krystkowiak made sure his guards got him the ball. And once Washburn got the ball in the right spots, the points began to come.

"The scoring was the easy part," Washburn said. "It was so different at first, because he was playing such a different game than I was used to. It was hard, and the season was hard. But I look at last season as something that I want to continue. I really think that we can do some things this year as a team."

As a junior, Washburn averaged 11 points and six rebounds per game — both career highs. He's come back this year with an expanded game. In Wednesday's intrasquad scrimmage, he took — and made — a 3-pointer as the trail man on a fast break.

With five guys 6-10 or taller, the Utes are no longer Washburn and a bunch of pint-sized guards. Washburn also points to the team's improved shooting and looks forward to not seeing more double- and triple-teams.

And the confidence is there. He knows that he will still be the hub of what Utah is trying to accomplish.

"He's our leader, man," senior guard Cedric Martin said. "He's going to take us as far as we're going to go. Not a lot of teams have an offensive presence in the post like Jason is, and that's where he really helps us. As the year went on, his defense got better. He's blocked a lot of shots. He's really improved for us."

Jason Washburn file

• Scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds in his career debut

• Is the lone remaining Utah Ute to have played minutes under Jim Boylen

• Scored a season-high 26 points against Oregon in the 2011-2012 regular-season finale

• Blocked six shots in a win over Stanford

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