Lessons learned as players at Montana aid three Division I head coaches

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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).

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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.'”

Indiana’s late-run beats No. 11 Michigan State 67-63

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Joey Brunk scored 14 points, including a key layup with 1 minute left to play, and Jerome Hunter made two late free throws Thursday night to close out Indiana’s 67-63 victory over No. 11 Michigan State.

The Hoosiers (15-4, 5-3 Big Ten) have won two straight and four of their last five. It was coach Archie Miller’s 50th win since taking the job three seasons ago.

Cassius Winston had 13 of his 17 points in the second half to lead the Spartans (14-5, 6-2), who lost their third straight in the series.

Michigan State had a chance to force overtime after forcing a turnover, calling timeout and sending Winston through the lane. He flipped the ball to Xavier Tillman for a layup, but the ball rolled off the rim and Hunter grabbed the rebound.

His free throws sealed the win.

The Hoosiers needed everything they had to earn this one after blowing a seven-point halftime lead.

Michigan State rallied by making its first six 3-point attempts in the second half and finally took a 51-48 lead on Rocket Watts’ 3 with 11:05 to go.

It remained a one-possession game the rest of the way.

But Aljami Durham finally gave Indiana what it needed – a 3 with 1:52 left – to break a 60-60 tie. Brunk’s layup made it 65-62.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: Trips to Indiana just haven’t been kind to the Spartans lately. On Jan. 12, they were routed at Purdue. This time, they got beat in the closing minutes. Clearly, Michigan State performed closer to expectations than it did at Purdue. But another slow start cost them another game. They will return to Indiana for the conference tournament in March.

Indiana: It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Hoosiers struggled to make shots. But they’ve figured out how to limit the 3s and take advantage of their size and athleticism inside, and it’s made a huge difference. If Indiana’s offense stays in sync this weekend, they just might crack the Top 25 for the first time.

STAT PACK

Michigan State: Aaron Henry had 12 points, while Gabe Brown had 10 points and four 3s. Xavier Tillman finished with nine points and 10 rebounds. … The Spartans had 13 turnovers, but only gave up six points off those turnovers. … Michigan State started the game by missing its first nine 3s. It wound up 9 of 21 from beyond the arc.

Indiana: Trayce Jackson-Davis had 12 points and four rebounds, while Durham finished with 11 points and four 3s. … Race Thompson had four points, two blocks and two steals before leaving the game late in the first half after a hard foul. He sat on the bench the entire second half. … Nine of the 10 Hoosiers who appeared in the first half scored. Only Jerome Hunter, who logged four minutes, was shut out. … NBA star Victor Oladipo attended the game. The two-time All-Star is expected to make his season debut with the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.

UP NEXT

Michigan State: plays two of its next three on the road, including Sunday’s stop at Minnesota.

Indiana: hosts another ranked opponent, No. 17 Maryland, on Sunday.

Three Things To Know: Marcus Carr beats Ohio State, Indiana wins, Yoeli’s back

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There were no brawls, but there is still plenty to talk about after a full slate of games on Thursday night.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. THE BIG TEN STAYS WILD

It was another bonkers night in the toughest conference in the country on Thursday.

Let’s start with the early game.

Ohio State lost for the sixth time in the last seven games, blowing an 11-point second half lead after Marcus Carr, who finished with 21 points, his a three with 3.3 seconds left on the clock to give the Gophers a 62-59 win.

Daniel Oturu added 11 points and six boards, all of which came in the second half, as he shut down Kaleb Wesson to give Minnesota the season-sweep of the Buckeyes.

Minnesota is now 5-4 in the Big Ten and 11-8 on the season, and while this loss drops Ohio State into 12th place in the Big Ten standings, the work that they did in the early part of the season combined with the depth and strength of the conference they play in means that, as of now, this is still a Quad 1 win for Minnesota.

The late game was just as crazy.

No. 11 Michigan State trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half before storming back to take a lead in the final four minutes. But Indiana responded, and caught a lucky break as Xavier Tillman missed a wide-open tip-in with less than a second left on the clock that would have forced overtime.

The Spartans are now 6-2 in the Big Ten, putting them in a tie for first place with Illinois, while Indiana an absolutely enormous win for Archie Miller and this program. With No. 17 Maryland coming to town on Saturday, this was critical for Archie Miller, whose lack of success has gotten the locals riled up.

This should give him some breathing room.

2. YOELI CHILDS IS BACK

It hasn’t really been discussed much nationally to this point, but BYU is a really good, really dangerous team this season when they are at full strength.

The problem has been that they’ve barely been at full strength.

Their best player is Yoeli Childs, a 6-foot-9 center with all the tools that make him an intriguing NBA prospect and, in turn, an absolute monster in the WCC. But he missed the first nine games of the season because of a paperwork issue withdrawing from last year’s NBA draft, and then had to sit out the last four after injuring his finger.

But he’s back now.

And he put everyone on notice with a 26 point, nine rebound outburst in a 74-60 win at Pacific.The Cougars are a very real at-large candidate with the size and shot-making to threaten Gonzaga. Keep an eye on them.

3. HOUSTON SURVIVES UCONN

In one of the weirdest end-of-game sequences I can remember seeing, No. 25 Houston managed to find a way to survive UConn’s upset bid.

Here’s what happened: The Cougars, who trailed for the entire game, finally took the lead late in the second half. They had pushed the lead out to six points, when UConn’s Jalen Gaffney scored with 7.3 seconds left to cut it to four. But after he scored, Houston’s DeJon Jarreau said something to Danny Hurley and was given a technical foul. After Gaffney made both free throws, Jarreau then committed a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds.

UConn ball.

But this is the strangest part: Since UConn was in foul trouble, they brought in a walk-on — Temi Aiyegbusy — to commit a foul. But no time went of the clock on the turnover, so he had to remain on the court for the UConn possession. The ball ended up in his hands in the corner, and he passed up on a three took a pull-up that missed.

Houston grabbed the rebound, made their free throws, and that was that.

Three Things To Know: Memphis embarrassed; Luka Garza shows out again

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The story of the night in hoops was Zion Williamson’s return to the basketball court.

But there was plenty of action in the college ranks that is worthy of talking about.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. No. 20 MEMPHIS LOST BY 40 TO TULSA

That is not a typo.

The 20th-ranked team in the country went into Tulsa, Okla., and lost to the Golden Hurricane, 80-40. Tulsa was up 40-17 at halftime. This was a butt-whooping that was so bad that all Tulsa needed to do was score a single point in the second half and they would have been able to get the win.

Memphis shot 28 percent from the floor. They were 2-for-21 from three. They finished the night with more turnovers (20) and fouls (22) than field goals (16). This was the worst loss that a top 25 team has suffered against a ranked team in 27 years, since UConn beat then-No. 12 Virginia by 41 points.

For Tulsa, this is a massive, massive win. They are currently sitting all alone in first place in the American standings, a half-game up on Houston.

So good for Frank Haith.

But the story here is Memphis, because the Tigers, considered title contenders before the season began, look anything-but right now.

“We let our defense dictate our offense,” head coach Penny Hardaway told reporters after the game. “We didn’t play any defense today. I think today was the first day we’ve done that ll year. I don’t know if guys overlooked Tulsa because of the name. We did our due diligence as a coaching staff to let them know what was going to happen with the matchup zone and how hard they play.

“It’s pretty embarrassing.”

2. LUKA GARZA WENT NUTS AGAIN

If it seems like Garza is putting up monster numbers every games, it’s because he is.

On Wednesday night, the Hawkeyes welcomed newly-ranked Rutgers to campus and sent them home with an entertaining, hard-fought, 85-80 win. And Garza was the star of the show. He finished with 28 points, 13 boards, four blocks and two steals in the win, anchoring the paint as Iowa out-scored Rutgers 47-37 in the second half.

The big fella is now averaging 23 points and 10.5 boards.

Iowa has now won four straight games to move into a tie for third in the Big Ten standings — with Rutgers, among others — and they have won eight straight games in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are a third of the way through a three-game homestand as well.

3. VIRGINIA TECH TAKES DOWN NORTH CAROLINA

Virginia Tech kept up their push to finish as the fourth-best team in the ACC with a 79-77 double-overtime win over North Carolina.

The Hokies are now 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC, but the more interesting story might actually be the Tar Heels.

They are 8-10 on the season and 1-6 in the ACC. They have been a disaster for the last month, but there may be some reinforcements on the way in the shape of Cole Anthony. If he returns and the Tar Heels, who are 2-7 in his absence but have wins over Alabama and Oregon with him, get things back on the right track, they are likely going to find themselves in an incredibly awkward situation on Selection Sunday.

Big 12 hands down Kansas-Kansas State fight suspensions

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The Big 12 handed down suspensions to four Kansas and Kansas State players for their role in the fight that occurred in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Silvio De Sousa, who tried to fight three different Kansas State players and picked up a stool during the melee, received a 12 game suspension from the conference. David McCormack, who went into the stands to confront James Love III, received a two game suspension. Love was given eight games for part in the fight, while Antonio Gordon, the freshman that turned a messy situation into a fight, was hit with a three game suspension.

“This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last evening’s events,” said Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.  “I am appreciative of the cooperation of both institutions in resolving this matter.”

In the final seconds on Tuesday night, after DaJuan Gordon stole the ball from him at halfcourt, De Sousa blocked Gordon’s shot and towered over him. That sparked an incident that turned into a full-fledged brawl, as De Sousa threw punches at three different players on Kansas State before picking up a stool as the fight spilled into the handicapped section of Kansas seating.

Self called the fight “an embarrassment” after the game, adding on Wednesday that “we are disappointed in [De Sousa’s] actions and there is no place in the game for that behavior.”

McCormack will be eligible to return for Kansas on Feb. 1st when they play Texas Tech at home. De Sousa will be available to play in the final game of the regular season at Texas Tech. Gordon can return on Feb. 3rd, when the Wildcats host Baylor, while Love will be out until late February. But he has played just one game and two minutes on the season, so there is no clear indication of when he will actually put on a Kansas State jersey again.

The four most important questions after Kansas-Kansas State fight

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Very other sport can treat brawls like comedy, and I think it’s about time that we did the same for basketball.

So let’s take a look at the four funniest moments from last night’s Kansas-Kansas State fight. Shouts to Jomboy:

1. IS THE KANSAS MASCOT OK?

Throughout the entire fight, the mascot is just in utter disbelief. He cannot believe what he just saw, and he certainly cannot be consoled:

2. CAN JEREMY CASE START AT LINEBACKER FOR KU’S FOOTBALL TEAM?

Case is the video coordinator for Kansas. He’s also a former Kansas point guard. He knows what this rivalry is all about, and he also is not going to be afraid to get in the middle of it.

Case starts out on the wrong side of the melee:

But when he sees De Sousa and Love squaring up and throwing punches, he intervenes by throwing himself into a player six inches taller than him:

3. WHAT HAPPENED TO JAMES LOVE III’S SHOE?

James Love the third has played in exactly one game this season. He has spent more time on the court fighting that he has actually playing, but he still found a way to get into the middle of this fight and, in the process, lost his shoe:

He’s not dressed for the game.

Did he bring an extra pair of shoes? Did he have to head back onto the bus without a shoe on this right foot? So many questions, so few answers.

4. WHO IS THE MAN IN THE ORANGE HAT?

He’s some kind of photographer.

He got his shot, that’s for sure: