MISSOULA — What comes to mind when you think of Larry Krystkowiak and Wayne Tinkle?
Well, a lot, because Krystkowiak and Tinkle are pillars of the Montana men’s basketball program.
Both were standout players for the Grizzlies. Both went on to eventually coach as assistants for Montana before taking the reins as head coach and using their success at that level to jump in their careers.
Now both coaches at Pac-12 schools — Krystkowiak at Utah and Tinkle at Oregon State — the duo are connected by an even crazier feat when you think of Montana’s vast coaching tree.
Krystkowiak and Tinkle are the only coaches in Montana history to lead the Grizzlies to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
Krystkowiak took the Grizzlies to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 2005 and 2006, his only years as head coach in Missoula; Tinkle did it in 2012 and 2013.
But that’s it, a remarkable fact of life in the Big Sky Conference when you look at some of the other coaches who found success at Montana — Jud Heathcote, Mike Montgomery, Stew Morrill, and Blaine Taylor to name a few. Taylor, Krystkowiak and Tinkle are the only coaches to make multiple appearances.
Current Griz head coach Travis DeCuire, who just won his 100th career game on Saturday, is trying to join that exclusive club.
Just how hard is it to repeat as Big Sky champs? Well, ask the two who’ve accomplished it.
“It’s really tough to do, especially as regular season and tournament champs," Tinkle told 406mtsports.com. "There’s been a lot of regular season champions that don’t win the title just because that thing is such a grind. I was blessed those two years. Our players had incredible heart and character.”
Expectations for the Montana Grizzlies were high coming into the season. So far they’ve fit the bill.
Sitting at 17-6 overall, 10-2 in Big Sky Conference play and riding a seven-game winning streak, UM sits alone atop the league standings with eight games remaining before the conference tournament.
With that success undoubtedly comes the mutterings of great Grizzly teams of the past. After all, Montanans love to reminisce.
This year’s team hasn’t been without adversity. The injury bug has made its rounds. But Tinkle noted that in the 2012-2013 season, his team underwent similar issues. Senior standout Will Cherry missed time as did senior Mathias Ward.
“It’s just a credit to our guys,” Tinkle said. “It’s much more about them than the coaching staff. They weren’t going to be denied. We had set goals. They held each accountable to attain those. I can’t emphasize that enough on how much those guys gave us and what they did for us.
“Those were two of my most enjoyable seasons (because of) not just what we accomplished but what we went through to get where we did.”
Arguably the biggest factor as to why it’s tough to make consecutive trips to the tournament is the Big Sky is a one-bid league. You have to win the conference tournament to get the automatic berth. Otherwise, you’re toast.
Tinkle pointed to the talented coaches and players in the league but said the travel throughout the season wears on you as well. Injuries play a factor in it plus Tinkle added that his bench players bought in and didn’t complain if they weren’t getting the minutes they wanted. Plus the leadership from the stars has to be there.
Keeping that drive each year is the biggest key according to him, but also the toughest.
“That’s the hardest thing to maintain is that level of competitiveness and accountability, especially after you win it once,” Tinkle said. “Keeping that edge and wanting for more and we had a pretty special group that did that for a few years.”
Tinkle also noted how being among the league’s best each year puts a constant target on your back.
“Everybody is gunning for you,” Tinkle said. “You’re getting everybody’s best shot whether it’s home or road. I think you add those factors in and it makes it very difficult to repeat."
Tinkle is similar to DeCuire in that both coaches didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament until their fourth year at the helm. Tinkle, who spent eight years at UM, went three times in his final five years.
Now in his fifth year at OSU, Tinkle took the Beavers to the tournament in 2016, his second season. For him, both the Pac-12 and Big Sky are difficult, but for different reasons.
“Anywhere you’re at it’s a grind and challenge,” Tinkle said. “Most years, the Pac-12 is a multi-bid league and so you’ve got to set goals and be realistic with your guys as you move forward. If it doesn’t look like you’re going to get the regular season (title), let’s find a way to get momentum and handle our business."
Krystkowiak agreed with that thought on each league sporting its own difficulties. He noted that back in 2016, the Pac-12 had seven teams make it to the NCAA Tournament. Krystkowiak is in his eighth year at Utah and has guided the Utes to the NCAA Tournament twice.
“In the Big Sky, it was all about peaking at the right time," Krystkowiak said.
Unlike Tinkle, both of Krystkowiak’s seasons at UM saw the Grizzlies enter the conference tourney not as regular season champs. But they won out to get the bid.
“I think the main key is that you want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season to give you a chance,” Krystkowiak said. “Both Wayne and myself, we’ve kind of been programmed to keep getting better as the year goes on.
“It’s just a grind. You try to avoid the highs and lows and you’re always gearing up and trying to be clicking on all those cylinders at the right time. I think that’s something pretty consistent with all of the coaches and all of the teams that have been at Montana and it’s certainly what we learned.”
Krystkowiak went two-for-two in reaching the NCAA Tournament with Montana before heading to Milwaukee to join the Bucks. In that second year, the Grizzlies were a 12-seed and beat fifth-seeded Nevada in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We had a veteran group of guys and we were playing really good basketball at the right time and went in and took care of business,” Krystkowiak said. “It takes a little bit of good fortune but at the same time just never staying out of the fight and keep grinding and that’s what we did I know."
Ironically, in his conversation with 406mtsports.com, Krystkowiak was sitting in the parking lot of the Huntsman Center where the Utes play and also where Montana topped Nevada that year.
Krystkowiak said in his two years at UM the lineups stayed relatively consistent and he gained some players who were ready to go right away, specifically pointing out Andrew Strait, Jordan Hasquet and Matt Martin who were all freshmen in the 2005 season. Kevin Criswell, Virgil Matthews, Kamarr Davis and Matt Dlouhy were some of the upperclassmen who paced the Griz.
But as far as being one of two coaches to achieve that goal in consecutive years, Krystkowiak pointed out another fact.
“It’s a really hard thing to do once,” Krystkowiak said of making the tournament. “If you’re doing it once, there’s a decent chance that you lost some guys and you have to try and rebuild it for the following year so it takes a little bit of luck.”
Both Griz guys through and through, Krystkowiak and Tinkle said it was nice to see Montana get back to the tournament last year and that they’re always rooting for their alma mater.
So, any advice for this year’s team as they chase history?
“Just make sure those guys keep their edge,” Tinkle said. “Don’t get content. Don’t try to play down. Just keep them hungry. That’s a great staff that he’s put together and I’m certain that’s what they’re doing.”
“I know Travis well and I know there’s not a whole lot of advice that I can give him that he doesn’t already know. You just always stay in the fight and keep grinding and you approach the next game and possession with a sense of urgency,” Krystkowiak said. “It’s not a time to rely on past performances. That’s part of Grizzly DNA. That’s all pretty deep within us from the coaches that we played for.”