Loyola-Chicago’s Cameron Krutwig on Final Four run, Sister Jean, and return to NCAA tournament

Loyola-Chicago’s stunning run to the Final Four in 2018 charmed the country with everything a great Cinderella should have in the NCAA tournament. The Ramblers brought a 98-year-old nun named Sister Jean into our lives, won multiple games on buzzer-beaters, and tied the record for the lowest-seeded team to ever reach the national semifinals with a No. 11 next to their name.

The starting center on that team was hefty freshman big man Cameron Krutwig. Three years later, Krutwig has emerged as perhaps the country’s biggest mid-major star as Loyola-Chicago has again steamrolled its way into the NCAA tournament.

There’s an argument that this year’s team could be even better than the fabled 2018 squad.

The Ramblers will enter the tournament at 24-4 overall and as the No. 9 team in the entire country according to KenPom’s efficiency rankings. Their offense is better than it was in 2018 — jumping from No. 63 to No. 52 in America. The defense? Right now, the Ramblers have the most efficient defense in college basketball, allowing only 86.2 points per 100 possessions.

Krutwig has been in the middle of it all season on his way to being named Missouri Valley Player of the Year. The 6’9 big man is averaging 15 points, 6.7 rebounds, and three assists per game on 60 percent true shooting, but his impact goes far beyond those basic numbers.

Krutwig is the third most valuable player in college basketball this year according to KenPom, only behind presumptive Naismith winner Luka Garza and Gonzaga’s Drew Timme while ahead of Jared Butler, Ayo Dosunmu, and future NBA stars like Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Krutwig is No. 8 in the country in all-in-one stats BPM and PER (30.8) and No. 7 in win shares, per Basketball Reference. It’s shocking to see Krutwig grade out so well defensively as a top-10 player in both defensive rating and defensive win shares.

Krutwig has a decidedly old school game. He hasn’t attempted a three-point all year, and gets 43 percent of his possessions on post-ups, per Synergy Sports. He ranks in the 86th percent of spot-up scoring efficiency, and also grades out as excellent in roll man opportunities (94th percentile) and on offensive putbucks (84th percentile). His passing ability has led some to joke that he’s the Nikola Jokic of the Missouri Valley.

We talked to Krutwig about his experience playing in the Final Four as a freshman, how this team stacks up to the 2018 squad, his love of the Chicago Bears, and the latest with Sister Jean.

You committed to Loyola-Chicago going into your senior year at suburban Jacobs High School. At the time, the program hadn’t had made the NCAA tournament since 1985. You probably could have gotten offers from bigger schools if you dragged out your recruitment. What attracted you to Loyola and why did you pick them?

I don’t know if I was really looking at it like the program hadn’t made the tournament since ‘85. I honestly wasn’t basing it off that. I really didn’t know much about Loyola until I took some visits there my sophomore and junior year. I really fell in love with the coaches, fell in love with the campus. I wanted to be close to home so that was definitely a factor. I wanted my family to be able to come to games.

Like you said, so many kids, by no fault of their own, they don’t commit for a while and during their senior year they start to play well and the big schools come calling. Because the big schools couldn’t get their first, second, third, and fourth guys, so they’re on to their fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth guys. They’re still good players, but they aren’t the school’s first options. I had a pretty good feel of where my level was. If I would have waited — I had a really good senior year — I could have played somewhere a little more high-major. But I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be the priority, where I can come in right away and play. I thought I made a pretty good choice.

What was the experience like playing in the Final Four as a freshman? You guys had a lot of great seniors on that team, but it must have been a whirlwind experience.

You don’t really go into the year saying we’re going to do that. Throughout the whole year, summer into fall, as we got into that process we knew we were going to have a good team. I don’t know what we were picked in the league that year preseason, it might have been third or fourth, but we came out and played really well together. As the season went on, we started to build really good chemistry and a great feel for playing with each other. We went into Florida, they were ranked No. 5 in the polls at the time, and we beat them. That was kind of the first time we felt real success. Every win prior to that we beat who we should have beat.

What people don’t realize about that team, after that Florida game we went to Boise State and got throttled by 30 points. We lost to UW-Milwaukee that year. We lost to Indiana State at home. We had some lackluster losses for sure, it wasn’t all pretty all year. If we don’t win the MVC tournament that year we wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament. A lot of things need to go right. You definitely need some luck. Everyone needs luck in March.

I think we did a really good job of focusing in on what we needed to focus on. We enjoyed the crap out of the experience. I certainly enjoyed it. There are times when you can be goofy and funny and times when you really have to lock in during walkthroughs and film sessions. That team had a really good balance of when to have fun and when to be serious.

I think that’s something this year’s team has as well. Everyone loves each other, everyone is pulling for each other, but we know when to lock in and when to have fun. It makes it an enjoyable experience because you don’t want to keep it too loose all the time because then you can’t get what you want to get done. You also don’t want to be stone-face serious the whole time because you only get four years of college basketball and some people play all four years and don’t even make the tournament once. You definitely have to enjoy it.

Did you feel pressure to get back to the next two years? You hit the pinnacle as a freshman. After accomplishing something so great as a freshman, it must have been wild to return to normal Missouri Valley play.

The next year Clay (Custer) and Marques (Townes) were redshirt seniors so they got to come back for my sophomore year. But there was a lot of pressure on us that season. Everyone was saying you guys got to go back, got to go back. Obviously you can’t make the Final Four every year. As a mid-major, you can’t even make the tournament every year. There was just a lot of pressure on us, and we tried to handle it as best as we could.

Guys were tense. We really didn’t want to let anyone down. We had such good guys, such strong character. People were coming up to us after our Final Four run my freshman year saying ‘this is the best month of my life. I’ve re-connected with so many old friends.’ People bringing a tear to your eye with that stuff. You never want to let anyone down. Not to say we were really thinking about it that much, but it’s always in the back of your mind. People want to see us get back and re-live a run like that again. It was just a lot of pressure.

My junior year, Clay and Marcus graduated and started playing overseas. Then it was really my team and (fellow senior and MVC Defensive Player of the Year) Lucas’ (Williamson) team. My junior year we finished second in the league. We were really just trying to build a successful, sustainable program here. A lot of rough patches, some bad losses, and good wins. The whole thing that sparked us into this year was we got bounced in the first round of the MVC tournament. It was not the way we wanted to go out. We were the No. 2 seed, we were playing pretty well, and then we lost in overtime. A week or so later, the whole country shut down with Covid. It was a tough one to go out on there going into quarantine with that feeling in your stomach.

We had a lot of Zoom meetings, all we were talking about was that game, how we need to come with reinvigorated focus next year, and that’s really pushed us to the success we’re having this year. It’s really all the same guys, we lost one senior and gained two freshmen. It’s been propelling us to the success we’re having this year. We’re never going to forget what happened last season. We took a lot from Virginia. When we had that Final Four run in 2018, they were the No. 1 seed in the South where we were, and they got bounced in the first round to UMBC. They told their story a bunch of times, and then came back the next year and won the national championship. We took a lot from them just to always stay with it.

Everyone is asking it, so let’s get it from you. How does your current team stack up to the Final Four team if they played against each other? What happens at the center matchup?

I think I’m a way better player than I was back then. I’ve gotten more athletic even if it’s only a little bit (laughs). I think I’m a much better player. I was always a vocal guy, even as a freshman people will say I was one of if not the loudest guy on the floor at all times. I really prided myself on that. I’m just a better player this year.

There’s a lot of similarities with the teams. Senior leaders, for one. This year we have seven seniors. Guys who have played in big-time Valley games. Lucas and I have played in any game imaginable. Just having that confidence and leadership is so big. One strength in this year’s team is our depth. We have a lot of guys who are able to come in and contribute off the bench on any given night, and I think that’s helped us in these back-to-backs and in the Valley tournament. We were able to play eight or nine guys deep and trust everyone coming in to make the right decisions.

If both teams played each other … I don’t know if you can say a winner one way or another. I think there’s some similarities on defense as well. This team is better at defense than that team. Just the numbers and the efficiency numbers on offense. There’s a lot of similarities for sure.

I have heard you play the harmonica. How did you pick it up? Have you played for Sister Jean?

I just picked it up in high school as a joke at the start. I don’t know if I’m getting serious about it now, but I’m practicing a little more now. In quarantine you have to pick up new habits and stuff just to stay busy.

Sister Jean has not been around in the flesh for this whole pandemic. I think she’s staying somewhere downtown. She’ll call us instead, sends us emails after every game and before practices sometimes. I actually haven’t seen Sister Jean in quite some time, but she’s always with us virtually. She still does the pre-game prayer just over the phone. It’s cool that we’ve been able to keep that tradition alive even though she can’t come to the games.

I know you’re a big Chicago Bears fan. I also need to know what you want to happen at QB this offseason. Please don’t tell me you’re a Mitch Trubisky guy.

I’m a big Jameis Winston guy honestly. I’m going to stay on that train. I think we can get him for cheap. I don’t know what the Saints plan to do with him, but I know he’s a free agent this year. I think he’s a pretty good thrower. He can throw the ball deep. That’s the one thing the Bears are missing right now is the deep ball. We didn’t throw the ball deep this year, teams aren’t respecting us ever trying to stretch the field. I think if Jameis comes in and throws a couple deep balls that could be good. If he throws a couple picks, that’s alright because the defense is used to turnovers (ed. note: LOL).

Obviously Russell Wilson is a good option too. I just don’t want to give the kitchen sink for the guy. Same with Deshaun Watson. Is it worth giving up all those picks and giving up some pretty good players on our defense to be good at quarterback? Yeah … probably. But I’d rather see some of those guys stay and pick up a Jameis type, or even keep Nick Foles as crazy as that sounds. We need offense line, too.

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