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Cedric Martin spoke to reporters after Thursday night's loss to UCLA with a thick bag of ice wrapped around his right hand.

The senior forward from Utah walked with a limp, courtesy of a Bruin kick to the groin. He still hasn't fully recovered from the hamstring injury that forced him to miss two games a few weeks ago. He is often among the most injured players on Larry Krystkowiak's roster.

Yet an argument can be made that, to this point in the season, Martin is Utah's most important player. As the Utes attempt to beat USC on Saturday afternoon at the Huntsman Center, he is Utah's best defender. He is Utah's glue guy offensively, a team leader and its toughest player.

Martin is the defensive stopper that all teams hope to have.

"He's a foxhole guy," Krystkowiak said. "He's the guy you want to go to battle with. He plays hurt, he plays defense and he makes good decisions with the ball. He's having a very good senior season."

Martin, originally from Minnesota, is one of only two players to return from the 2011-12 team that won six games. With little apparent scoring prowess, his inclusion into the Utes' starting lineup this season was a curious decision to outsiders.

As the season has progressed, however, it has become clear that Martin's value goes far beyond his ability to put a ball in the basket. Martin is exclusively assigned to guard the best perimeter player on the opposing team. The list of high-scoring wing players who he has shut down is becoming a long one.

He slowed down Derrick Marks of Boise State in Utah's win over the Broncos. He then limited Tyler Haws of BYU, allowing the Cougar star to make just two of his 10 shots from the field. On Thursday night, Martin shut down Shabazz Muhammad, the UCLA freshman star, holding him to 3-of-13 shooting.

"Everyone kept saying Muhammad's the No. 1 player in the nation; I didn't let it faze me," Martin said. "We're still learning from our mistakes and we're getting better and better everyday. We're showing that teams aren't going to come and blow us out. We just have to figure out a way to close games out."

Martin has started most of Utah's games when he hasn't been injured. Although he doesn't score much, he contributed a season-high 12 points against UCLA. Although he's not a great shooter, he has already made shot-clock-beating 3-pointers against Arizona and the Bruins. And although he's not a primary ballhandler, he regularly fills up the stat sheet with assists and steals.

His hamstring injury allowed his value to be recognized, as the defense sputtered without him in the lineup. With 15 conference games remaining, Martin has made himself almost irreplaceable. —

USC at Utah

P The Huntsman Center

Tipoff • 4 p.m.

TV • Pac-12 Networks

Radio • 700 AM

Records • Utah 8-7, 0-3; USC 6-10, 1-2

Last meeting • USC 62, Utah 45 (Jan. 28, 2012)

Series history • USC leads, 16-14

About the Trojans • USC lost its first two conference games. … USC point guard Jio Fontan is second in the league in assists at 5.1 per game. … USC was the only team in the league with a losing overall record heading into conference play.

About the Utes • Utah has lost three Pac-12 games by a combined eight points. … Cedric Martin had a season-high 12 points against UCLA. … Jordan Loveridge has scored in double figures 10 times this season. … Utah shot a season-worst 4 of 20 from 3-point range vs. the Bruins.

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