The Big Sky is home of Big Air.
Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis delivered an absolutely filthy, absurd, violent and magnificent dunk Friday in a semifinal contest against Montana.
Just a brutal and beautiful dunk.
The Big Sky is home of Big Air.
Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis delivered an absolutely filthy, absurd, violent and magnificent dunk Friday in a semifinal contest against Montana.
Just a brutal and beautiful dunk.
While the 2015-16 season has yet to get underway, some in-season tournaments have already begun the process of finalizing teams for the 2016-17 campaign. Wednesday evening the Paradise Jam revealed its eight-team field for the 2016 edition of the event, which is scheduled to be played November 18-21, 2016 at the University of the Virgin Islands.
NC State, which has reached the NCAA tournament in each of the last four seasons under head coach Mark Gottfried, is part of the event as are Andy Kennedy’s Ole Miss Rebels. Completing the field are Creighton, Loyola-Chicago, Oral Roberts, Montana, Saint Joseph’s and Washington State.
Of the eight teams just two have made prior appearances at the Paradise Jam. Phil Martelli’s Saint Joseph’s team finished fifth in 2009, with Ole Miss finishing third two years later. Washington State may have the most interesting connection to this tournament, however.
The father of forward Josh Hawkinson, who was the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player last season and will be a senior in 2016-17, created the Paradise Jam back in 2000. That should make for a fun return to the Virgin Islands for Josh next November. Nels Hawkinson is the executive director of Basketball Travelers, a company some may be familiar with as they’ve set up foreign tours for many college basketball programs over the years.
While NC State and Ole Miss are the lone teams in this field to reach the NCAA tournament last season, Montana is one of the favorites in the Big Sky entering the 2015-16 season and ORU is expected to be a factor in the Summit League. Scott Sutton’s Golden Eagles were picked to finish third in the Summit League preseason coaches poll.
Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Big Sky.
After a 2013-14 season in which eight teams managed to win at least ten games in conference play, there was more separation in the Big Sky pecking order in 2014-15. The number of teams with ten or more league wins was trimmed to five, with Montana and Eastern Washington finishing tied for first at 14-4 and Sacramento State and Northern Arizona a game behind the Grizzlies and Eagles at 13-5.
Jim Hayford’s Eagles managed to win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, winning at Montana in the Big Sky title game, but he has a lot to replace with four starters from that team having moved on including high-scoring guard Tyler Harvey. That leaves senior forward Venky Jois as the lone returning starter, but fellow forward Bogdan Bliznyuk could be one of the Big Sky’s breakout players after averaging 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game. Even with their personnel losses EWU has the potential to be a factor in the Big Sky race.
As for the favorites, a Montana team led by forward Martin Breunig and guards Mario Dunn and Brandon Gfeller can certainly make that claim even with the graduation of leading scorer Jordan Gregory. Travis DeCuire’s first season as head coach at his alma mater yielded a share of the Big Sky regular season title and a trip to the Postseason NIT. The question now is whether or not this talented group can go a step further than they did in 2014-15, as they fell at home to EWU in the Big Sky title game.
Another team to keep an eye on is Weber State, which returns the tandem of guard Jeremy Senglin and forward Joel Bolomboy. In total five of Weber State’s top six scorers (four starters) from last season are back, meaning that the pieces are in place for the team to rebound from last season’s 13-17 record. The Wildcats struggled on both ends of the floor but especially offensively, shooting just 45 percent inside of the arc and ranking 258th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.
But Randy Rahe’s squad was young, with a number of players getting used to new roles. With a season of experience under their belts, Weber State can make a leap up the Big Sky standings.
Jack Murphy’s Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, who won 13 league games last season, return two of the Big Sky’s best players and as a result are capable of contending as well. Guard Kris Yanku emerged as one of the conference’s top point guards as a sophomore, and with forward Jordyn Martin serving as the team’s defensive anchor (Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year last season) NAU can overcome the fact that they lost three starters from last season’s CIT finalists.
Southern Utah may be able to take a step forward in Nick Robinson’s fourth season at the helm, as they return five of their top six scorers led by senior wing A.J. Hess. The middle of the Big Sky won’t lack for intrigue, which is usually the case for the conference. Five teams won between seven and ten conference games last season, with the best offensive team of that quintet (Northern Colorado) finishing at the top of that group. Yet while in seasons past those teams were fighting for a conference tournament berth, they’ll only be fighting for seeding as the format (all 12 teams qualify) and location (Reno, Nevada) of the tournament have changed.
Prior to last season either Montana or Weber State won four of the last five Big Sky tournament titles (2011 being the exception), and at least one of those two has played in the last six championship games. Given the talent back at both programs, the 2015-16 season could see one of those two traditional powers holding the Big Sky trophy come March.
PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Martin Breunig, Montana
In his first season on the court for the Grizzlies, the former Washington forward emerged as one of the top players in the Big Sky. Averaging 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and shooting better than 59 percent from the field, Breunig was one of three players to be a unanimous All-Big Sky selection.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM:
ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigSkyMBB
2. Weber State
3. Northern Arizona
4. Eastern Washington
5. Southern Utah
6. Portland State
7. North Dakota
8. Northern Colorado
10. Sacramento State
11. Idaho State
12. Montana State
Montana’s basketball program has one of the best coaching trees of any program in the country.
It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
As NBCSports.com detailed last February, Michigan State legend Jud Heathcoate, former Stanford and Cal head coach Mike Montogomery, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak, Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle, recently retired Utah State coach Stew Morrill and former Old Dominion head man Blaine Taylor all made their way through the Missoula campus.
That’s quite a legacy, and one that the program will be celebrating with a “Roundball Roast” fundraiser event in which the coaches will have a chance to … well, roast each other.
Knowing these coaches — how intense Krystkowiak and Tinkle can be, the personality of Taylor, etc. — there’s no doubt that this event will be one worth watching.
It’s $150 a ticket.
So maybe we just hope that someone in there gets video of it?
On March 11, 2010 in the Big Sky tournament final, Montana guard Anthony Johnson put forth a performance for the ages in the second half of the Grizzlies’ win over Weber State. With his team down by as much as 22 points (20 at the half), Johnson led the Grizzlies on an incredible comeback by scoring 34 of his 42 points in the second half (and the team’s final 21 points).
What makes the feat all the more amazing is that Johnson did so while struggling with glare caused by the lights in the arena that made it difficult for Johnson to see the rim. The story of how Johnson’s vision became an issue for him began an incredible story written by Jayson Jenks of the Seattle Times on the now-28 year old Johnson, and the cycle of violence he’s hoping to end.
At the age of nine Johnson was severely beaten by his stepfather, with the resulting injuries leading to two separate surgeries on Johnson’s left eye. Now raising a six-month old son with his wife Shaunte, Anthony Johnson aims to ensure that his child will never go through what he did as a youngster.
As much as Anthony wrestled with his childhood, as much as he tried to reconcile it, his past never let go of him. For a long time he didn’t want kids because he was scared of himself.
Some days Shaunte cried and worried that she was the problem. They were married in 2006, but Anthony couldn’t shake his fears. Would he repeat the ills of his childhood? Would he pass on his curse?
He knows the issues of his past will be the issues of his future, and he will have to decide for it to be different. Coldness is in his DNA, and the programming of his childhood will shadow him forever.
There are 15 college programs can claim at least three alums among the 351 Division I head coaches. Name-brand programs — Duke and North Carolina, Arizona and Kentucky — are on that list. So are smaller schools, like Howard and Division III Catholic University.
Montana is on that list as well, as Larry Krystkowiak, Wayne Tinkle and Travis DeCuire have all followed a similar path in their respective coaching careers — former Montana player who eventually becomes a head coach at Montana at some point. You often hear about about the Carolina family or the Duke coaching tree, but up in Missoula, the Grizzlies have developed their very own coaching tree; a coaching tree that has produced the two favorites for Pac-12 Coach of the Year; a coaching tree that includes a Hall of Famer and dates all the way back to Jud Heathcote.
Heathcote served as head coach at Montana from 1971-76, posting an overall record of 80-53 before moving on to Michigan State. And after Jim Brandenburg took the reins for two seasons Mike Montgomery moved into the head coaching position, where he would eventually be followed by Stew Morrill and Blaine Taylor.
All three of those coaches would experience success at other stops in their respective careers. Montgomery made his name at Stanford before a short-lived stint in the NBA and, eventually, a few years at Cal. Taylor found success at Old Dominion, while Morrill turned Utah State into one of the nation’s best mid-major programs.
What’s noteworthy about the time those three spent in Missoula is that it intersected with that of Krystkowiak, Tinkle and DeCuire. Morrill, who will retire at the end of this season, coached both Krystkowiak and Tinkle, and he also added DeCuire to the program as a transfer before moving on to Colorado State.
And, according to him, it’s been administration’s willingness to foster continuity helped make Montana a successful basketball program.
“Jud Heathcote got it started, and we were all very fortunate that the administration was willing to hire the assistant coach time after time,” Morrill told NBCSports.com. “And it’s worked very well for them over the years. I got my start that way as a head coach, and I felt very fortunate to be in that position.”
It wasn’t an easy gig, however.
“There were high expectations; most of us only had one-year contracts,” Morrill added. “I was an assistant for Mike Montgomery for eight years and a head coach for five, and I always tell people that ‘I’ve been a coach for 29 years, but Montana was the most pressure I’ve felt.’ It was my first head coaching job, and the tradition had been established by the coaches who came before me.”
Krystkowiak was the first to arrive on the scene, as he was recruited by Montgomery and Morrill and went on to become the program’s greatest player. He won three Big Sky Player of the Year awards at Montana, and to this day he remains the school’s all-time leader in both points and rebounds. After playing more than a decade in the NBA, Krystkowiak embarked on what has been a successful coaching career, which includes a two-year stint at his alma mater (2004-06).
Now in his fourth season as the head coach at Utah, Krystkowiak has revamped a storied program that fell on hard times prior to its move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. The Utes, led by senior guard Delon Wright, are currently ranked ninth in both the AP and Coaches’ polls, and with a host of contributors having eligibility remaining beyond the current season, the future is bright in Salt Lake City as well.
Something that has helped Krystkowiak in the process is his time at Montana, where he was able to play for coaches who not only knew the game but also knew what it took to build a quality program.
“It’s just the grind, the process of having to start over, and how to tackle it,” Krystkowiak told NBCSports.com. “It can be overwhelming I think, so the important thing was to have a target of what you’re trying to accomplish in short periods of time and move on to the next thing. If you don’t have some patience and a blueprint for how to attack it, then it’s probably not going to be very successful.”
“So we just tried to stay consistent and try to make a little progress each day. There weren’t too many long-term goals; it’s more about ‘whatever the fire is right now, let’s put it out.'”
Tinkle, now the head coach at Oregon State, was a teammate of Krystkowiak’s for two seasons at Montana and also served on his coaching staff from 2004-06. And during the time they spent together as teammates, Tinkle saw qualities in Krystkowiak that have translated into him being a good head coach.
“Looking back on his playing days, the work ethic and the energy he brought is what I’ll always remember about him,” Tinkle told NBCSports.com last month. “Nobody outworked him, nobody out-hustled him; he was super-competitive. We got in scraps in pickup games during the spring and summer because if you lost, you had to sit awhile. That’s where I learned a lot about the level of competitiveness you needed to play with.”
“The two years I got to coach with him is really when I got to see the ‘intelligent’ part of his mind as far as scheming, X’s and O’s, and his understanding of the game,” Tinkle continued. “And then his demeanor, personality and drive all set pretty good standards as far as never getting too emotional and keeping yourself in control.”
Tinkle arrived on the Montana campus as a player in 1985, with Krystkowiak coming off of a sophomore season in which he won the first of his three Big Sky Player of the Year awards. Both Montgomery (one season) and Morrill (three seasons) served as head coach during Tinkle’s playing career, one in which he would earn first team All-Big Sky honors in each of his final three seasons and be named team MVP as both a junior and a senior. Tinkle’s playing career took him overseas for more than a decade, before returning to his alma mater as an assistant in 2003.
And like his former teammate, the times spent in Missoula have helped Tinkle put together an impressive head coaching record. Taking over for Krystkowiak in 2006, Tinkle went on an eight-year run in which the program won more than 63 percent of its games and made three NCAA tournament appearances. The success at Montana is what led to some being surprised when he made the decision to take over at Oregon State last spring.
After being an integral figure in a program that considers contending for conference titles to be the norm, Tinkle was moving to one that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since the father — Gary Payton — of the best player on this year’s team — Gary Payton II — was in Corvallis. But in deciding to make the move, Tinkle saw some similarities between the two communities that lead him to believe that he can turn Oregon State into a consistent winner.
“They’re both college towns that really rally behind the university,” Tinkle said. “And the fact that they’re blue-collar communities that just want to see the kids play their tails off and do things the right way.”
The first season at Oregon State has been much better than anyone anticipated back in October. Picked to finish last in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll, Oregon State is currently tied for fifth and 16-9 overall (7-6 Pac-12). The Beavers aren’t the deepest team, but with players such as Payton II, Malcolm Duvivier and Langston Morris-Walker leading the way Oregon State has relied on its defense to this point in the season.
In conference games Oregon State is ranked second in the Pac-12 in both field goal and three-point percentage defense, and they also lead the Pac-12 in blocked shots per game. With a respected recruiting class signed up for next season, the future appears bright for Oregon State. But the current players can help set the tone, since the majority of them will return next season, and that’s something Tinkle’s players have embraced.
“We brought that up early on, with the hype of [the 2015 recruiting] class. They’re here right now, and in some respects we’re all kind of auditioning for the future,” Tinkle noted. “This is the way we want to do things and if you guys do it, we’re going to build something really neat and if you don’t you might not be here. But then we also said, ‘those guys are going to have to go through the rigors and the hard times just like you, nothing’s going to be handed to them’ and I think they appreciated hearing that.
“They did say, ‘why wait, let’s buy in and see what we can make happen in year one.’ Because I think they saw the effort that the staff was putting in. We’re all earning paychecks this year so we’re all grinding away, and we didn’t want to be anyone’s doormat.”
With Tinkle moving on, Montana made the decision in June to hire Travis DeCuire as its new head coach. Like Krystkowiak and Tinkle before him DeCuire was also a productive player at Montana, earning first-team All-Big Sky honors as both a junior and senior and remains the school’s all-time assists leader. DeCuire landed at Montana as a transfer after spending one season at Hawaii Pacific, and while he didn’t get to play for Morrill in actual games (his redshirt year was Morrill’s final one at Montana) the point guard certainly made an impression on the coach.
“He came from a great high school program in Mercer Island, Washington, and his high school coach Ed Pepple swore by him. I mean this in the most positive way: he was just a cocky little point guard,” Morrill said. “He had great days ahead of him as a player, and you could see that he had the things you hoped to have in a point guard even though he wasn’t playing in games.”
DeCuire’s last coaching stop prior to returning to Montana was at Cal, where he served on Montgomery’s staff for six seasons (assistant for four, associate head coach for the last two). Like Krystkowiak and Tinkle before him, DeCuire can speak from experience the impact that the school and community have had on Montana basketball over the years.
The relationship has helped Montana not only become one of the Big Sky’s preeminent programs, but to establish a level of consistency that allows them to enter most seasons with realistic thoughts of winning a conference title and reaching the NCAA tournament. That relationship is also what sold DeCuire as a player when he was going through the recruiting process.
“The dream was there, and I believed in what was being sold,” DeCuire noted when asked about his recruitment, with the passion of the Montana fan base also standing out. “There weren’t many programs that were comparable in terms of fan passion and attendance.”
It’s with the tradition of success and a passionate fan base that DeCuire looks to lead Montana back to the top of the Big Sky, and with two starters and seven lettermen returning from last season’s 17-win squad he wasn’t left with an empty cupboard. After going through a tough non-conference slate that included double-overtime losses at Boise State and California, Montana’s 10-3 in Big Sky play with two of the defeats being close losses to Sacramento State (10-3) and Eastern Washington (10-2).
Martin Bruenig (16.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who sat out last season after transferring in from Washington, is averaging just under 17 points per game in conference play and has been one of the Big Sky’s best front court players. And in guards Jordan Gregory (16.8, 3.3 apg) and Mario Dunn (8.9, 4.0 apg), the Grizzlies have a solid perimeter tandem to lean on as they look to make a run at their third Big Sky title in the last four seasons.
The key in doing that boils down to one word: consistency, especially when it comes to turnovers. If Montana can play more efficiently, they’ll have a shot at getting back to the NCAA tournament after missing out a season ago.
“Our efficiency needs to improve down the stretch,” DeCuire said. “We were up 13 at Sacramento State before losing that game, and turnovers hurt us against Eastern Washington as well.”
While DeCuire adds his chapter to the Montana history books, what helps is the fact that the blueprint has been set for years. From Heathcote to Montgomery, and from Montgomery to Morrill and Taylor, the Montana program has led to success not only in Missoula but in other locales as well. And given what Krystkowiak, Tinkle and DeCuire have been able to do in their respective coaching careers, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
“I just think back to [Montgomery and Morrill’s] commitment to the fundamentals of the game, and how you went about life in general, were the main ingredients of what Montana basketball was and is.” Tinkle noted. “A lot of times you can get lost in all the nonsense. What winning programs come down to are the small things that become big things in the ‘big picture.'”