DENVER — The podium was the same as always at the NCAA tournament. Black curtains shrouding the interview area. A lot of bright lights directed forward. A gaggle of media asking questions.
It was a different deal and the same old deal combined.
The Utes arrived for their media appearance on Wednesday, just moments before the lights went up. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak knows the drill. He’s been there, won that. But it’s not just last year’s Sweet 16 run that made him familiar with his surroundings. It was two trips to the NCAA tournament as coach of the Montana Grizzlies.
Talk about disparity. In a different life, in a smaller place, he headed up a band of players whose basketball lives all ended with their last college game. Montana doesn’t send players to the NBA. Only one other Grizzly player has been drafted since Krystkowiak, and that was in the eighth round.
The roll call of pro players takes two seconds.
Meanwhile, at Utah he has coached first-round NBA picks in each of the last two years: Delon Wright in 2015 and this year’s Jakob Poeltl, who is sure to make the list. But asked if it’s a bigger thrill to come into the tournament with Montana, as a low seed, or Utah as a high seed — and which is easier to navigate — Krystkowiak attempted an original answer … but failed.
“That’s a great question,” he said. “I know it sounds maybe like coachspeak — monotonous answers — but I haven’t paid any attention, you know, to what seed we are.”
He continued, “Not much changes.”
As coach of the Grizzlies in 2005, his 16th-seeded team lost in the first round to Washington. The next year, as a 12 seed, his team beat Nevada in the first round before losing to Boston College.
The big takeaway: Don’t look any further ahead than the end of your nose.
This week provided an interesting contrast in positions. At Montana, the coach is always in a one-bid league. In every tournament game, his team is an underdog. But this year at Utah, things have been the opposite. The Utes got a No. 3 seed and will play No. 14 Fresno State Thursday.
But even though the Mountain West might have just one bid this year, it’s not a bottom-feeding league. Some years it has rivaled the Pac-12. On Wednesday Krystkowiak was in relaxed-but-alert mode, opening the media session by calling it “an amazing time of year.”
And “a privilege to be a part of March Madness.”
“Our guys are excited.”
He repeated a quote from last year, in which he said if he had a TV for just a month each year, it would be to watch the NCAA tournament and the Masters.
“To actually participate,” he said, “is pretty special.”
“So here we go.”
Check, check, check.
He ran through the loss to Oregon and said the message to his team in the NCAA tournament is the same as last year. He referenced something he also mentioned last year, by quoting football coach Tony Dungy.
“You do ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
He talked about star player Jakob Poeltl and his improvement in several areas. He paid tribute to Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris, the Mountain West Player of the Year, saying, “I’m not sure you can slow him down,” which loosely translated means “You can’t stop him; you can only hope to contain him.”
His best moment of the day came when, after calling Harris “the real deal,” he lightly asked a reporter, “You’ve seen him play quite a bit. What’s your suggestion for slowing him down?”
“Finger crossed?” she said.
“C’mon,” Krystkowiak joked. “We’ll talk.”
But as for whether it’s more exciting to coach an underdog or a big shot in the NCAA tournament, his response was mostly, “Good question.”
One he never got around to answering.
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