MISSOULA — During his spectacularly consistent career with the Grizzlies, Fabijan Krlsovic served as a conduit during a coaching change early on, a linchpin through adversity throughout his four years and a singular leader in the end. In the process, he carved out one of the unique careers in Montana men’s basketball history.
The easy going, likeable Australian’s final year came with decorations for both his team’s historic run to the NCAA Tournament and for his own individual achievements. The team captain won the Allan Nielsen Award as the best representative of Griz basketball, the Naseby Rhinehart Award as the team’s most inspirational player and the Grizzly Cup as the top all-around male student-athlete at UM.
On July 5, Krslovic — who signed with the Cairns Marlins in his home country of Australia the day after earning his degree from UM — claimed yet another prestigious honor. The Big Sky Conference named him Montana’s Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
It’s the final feather in the cap for the captain of Montana’s most recent participant in the Big Dance, a fitting affirmation to a player who has served as an unwavering example of the ideals UM head coach Travis DeCuire hopes his players strive to represent.
“You can get leadership in a lot of ways. Some guys lead by example, some guys are vocal. Anything Fab says Fab is about. And Fab picks and chooses the proper times to lead,” DeCuire, UM’s fifth-year head coach, said in February. “His positive communication and letting guys know what’s coming up was huge. And the way he represented himself off the court is exactly what we want.”
On May 6, Krslovic graduated with a degree in finance and a minor in math, earning Academic All-Big Sky honors for the third time in the process. He also was recognized by the NABC Honors Court for posting a 4.0 grade-point average his junior year. He was named to Montana’s President’s List three times for achieving a perfect GPA during a semester and he made the Dean’s List three other times.
During his final season with the Griz, Krslovic realized his dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Montana’s thrilling run through the Big Sky Tournament earned the group both affirmation and redemption. The team navigated the league as the marked team for the duration of last season’s slate while overcoming the shortcomings of earlier years. Although Montana endured a difficult shooting slump in its first round loss to eventual national runner-up Michigan, Krslovic credits the whole experience as the primary influence in his maturation.
“This experience has been awesome,” Krslovic said in an interview before his final clash with rival Montana State last season. “I didn’t know what to expect coming here, didn’t know much about Missoula and only had a brief conversation with the coaches at the time.
“It’s been an incredible place to live. The community here is so tight-knit and supportive. I’ll be walking around and people will always say, ‘Go Griz’ or ‘We love what you guys are doing this year.’ It means a lot and to know we have the support of the people around us. They really look to us to represent this town as well as we can. It’s been an absolute pleasure doing that, competing with these guys, teammates and coaches who will be lifelong friends.”
When the 6-foot-8 power forward first settled in Montana from his native Sydney, Australia, he knew little about Missoula or what to expect from life in the Treasure State. The difficulty of change was intensified when the head coach he came to play for, Wayne Tinkle, left before his true freshman season. Kerry Rupp, Tinkle’s assistant that served as Krslovic’s primary recruiter, went with Tinkle to Oregon State.
Krslovic inherited an ultra-competitive, aggressive head coach in Travis DeCuire with a personality far different than Tinkle’s. He also was thrust into the starting lineup for a team searching to find it’s identity with a roster built on the foundation of talented post Martin Breunig but playing for a former Griz point guard who preferred a swarming, high-pressure style.
The affable, articulate and driven Aussie never waivered during the transition, instead providing defensive stability and punch scoring on a team that won the Big Sky, hosted the 2015 league tournament for the final time before it moved to a neutral site and fell just short in the Big Sky Tournament championship game against Eastern Washington.
That disappointment marked the first of several in the postseason, the driving factor for Krslovic’s consistency and durability during a steak that saw him play in 132 straight games, including 116 starts. As he entered his senior year last fall, the one team accomplishment that eluded the man his teammates call “Fab” was hanging a Big Sky Tournament championship banner and punching a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“You ask Fab at any time and he will say that banner he has up there, when he looks at it, it’s a little bit bittersweet to him because he knows he won the conference but didn’t make the (NCAA) Tournament,” Oguine said before a practice in February. “Most of those banners are next to banners for NCAA Tournament appearances. That one, there’s no Big Dance. He’s salty about that. We don’t want to just hang a banner this year and say we came up short. We want to be able to hang up that banner and get to the tournament.”
On a squad filled with top-level talent — point guard Ahmaad Rorie, shooting guard Michael Oguine and post Jamar Akoh each earned all-conference honors last season — Krslovic progressively proved to be one of the league’s most important players as UM claimed the NCAA Tournament berth they coveted. A vocal defender that sprints back on defense as much to protect the rim as to direct traffic proved to be the lynchpin for the best defense in the Big Sky Conference.
“He’s been doing it since my freshman year when he was a sophomore,” UM junior forward Bobby Moorehead said in March. “He’s always been vocal and he always does the right things. He doesn’t have to score. Some games, he doesn’t score. He’s vocal, he talks on defense and lets everybody know where they need to be.”
Montana ripped off 13 straight wins to begin Big Sky play, eventually finishing with a 16-2 mark to earn the outright league championship and the No. 1 seed in the league tournament in Reno, Nevada. Krslovic averaged 7.4 points on 56.4 percent shooting and 5.1 rebounds per game, modest numbers considering the impact he had on most games.
He scored 15 points in his 100th career start at Portland State as Montana kept pace in a wild 92-89 shootout victory. He scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds as UM received a scare at Northern Colorado before emerging with an 88-79 win despite Oguine scoring five points and Akoh being held below his average. He scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in perhaps UM’s top team defensive performance of the season, holding sharpshooting Weber State to 2-of-11 from beyond the arc in a 75-57 win.
“The heart and soul he plays with is unmatched,” Montana State head coach Brian Fish said in June. “You can just tell how much it means to him.
“I’m blown away with how he is just a relentless warrior. I love how hard he plays.”
That work ethic and desire is something Krlsovic has intentionally cultivated, something that stems from what he says is a common mentality among Australian players. Growing up, Krslovic played with and against some of the country’s elite talent like NBA star Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers and rising Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum.
The influx of Aussies into the Big Sky has been prevalent as well, with players like Krlsovic and Jack Lopez contributing at Montana and players like Venky Jois and Felix Van Hofe starring at Eastern Washington. Although all have different skill sets, each brings a certain competitiveness and drive that Krslovic says is a trademark of Australian basketball.
“Australian basketball is all about fundamental basketball and playing hard,” Krslovic said. “A lot of guys who have come over here have really prided themselves on being the hard-nosed glue guy. They are going to give you everything they have, do the right things defensively and not do too much.
“I think I’m kind of in that same vein. It’s big staple of Australian basketball. The game over here is a lot more athletic and fast-paced. The European game is so skilled. Australia is all about being fundamentally sound and playing hard.”
Sydney has a population of more than five million people as of 2017. It is a cultural epicenter and a global city, so adjusting to life in Western Montana was stark for Krslovic when he first arrived in Missoula.
“The biggest thing was adjusting to the slower paced lifestyle in Missoula,” Krslovic said. “It’s a smaller town. When you are coming from a city like Sydney with five million people to here, it’s a bit different. You go from sky rises and skyscrapers to mountains. But this community is tight-knit and the support I felt from the first time I stepped on campus from all the boosters and the fans has been incredible.”
Aside from the cold streak against Michigan, Krslovic’s senior season played out like a storybook, from earning revenge with a sweep of the rival Bobcats to winning on Senior Night with his parents in attendance to somehow emerging with a victory against Northern Colorado in overtime of the Big Sky Tournament despite trailing by two possessions late in the semifinal match. The Big Dance berth was capped with a stellar defensive effort in another come-from-behind win over Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Tournament championship game.
After the buzzer of his final collegiate game sounded, the awards started pouring in, a fitting tribute for the glue of the Griz the past four years.
“He deserves this,” DeCuire said following winning the regular season. “He has been in this thing for the long haul. He’s committed to winning. He never talks about anything in terms of his own personal individual goals. When a guy sacrifices his body for years, you want to see him go out in style. For him to know he is hanging a banner and cutting the net, you can’t ask for more.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. All Rights Reserved.