It's easy to imagine what Loyola would be without 6-foot-9 freshman Cameron Krutwig.
Undersized, most likely.
Besides Krutwig, the tallest regular in Loyola's lineup is 6-6 Donte Ingram. Krutwig, a Jacobs High School graduate, was named Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year and the Ramblers head into the conference tournament this weekend as the No. 1 seed, with hopes of making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1985.
Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson went as far as comparing Krutwig to former NBA player Bryant "Big Country" Reeves. Obviously, it's not a perfect comparison, since Krutwig is not nearly as tall as the 7-foot Reeves. Hinson was talking mostly about Krutwig's rapid development and impact as a freshman.
"He (Krutwig) is the perfect piece for us that we haven't had in a long time," Ingram said. "His IQ for the game is just so high, his passing ability and scoring ability on the block, how vocal he is, letting guys know where to be. It's been a huge thing for us."
During the conference season, Krutwig was Loyola's second-leading scorer with 12.5 points per game, behind MVC player of the year Clayton Custer. The Algonquin native is the team's leading rebounder this season at 6.5 per contest.
"The first couple games, maybe I was a little nervous," Krutwig said. "It's basketball now. To me, there's no freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. We're playing for Loyola and we're trying to win."
Balance has been a key to Loyola's success this season. The Ramblers (25-5) typically work the ball around until they get a good look inside or one of several strong outside shooters shakes loose. Custer, junior Marques Townes and freshman Lucas Williamson are all shooting better than 44 percent from 3-point range.
Loyola ranks fifth in the nation in overall field-goal percentage at .586. The season has been a pleasant surprise, but Ramblers coach Porter Moser, a Naperville native, felt Krutwig could have an impact.
"I was hopeful for it because I watched him so much (in high school)," Moser said. "It just gives us something different than we've had. We haven't had a center like him. We played small-ball here … but we just haven't had that center that's an impact scoring guy like he is and it's really given us a different look."
Moser likes to say Krutwig is the most vocal player in the gym and he has a high basketball IQ. That high IQ may have caused Moser to misuse his freshman early in the season.
"He can really, really pass," Moser said. "And I think I made a mistake trying to do too many things through him as a passer. He 100 percent was thinking, 'Pass first, pass second, pass third.' That's what his mindset was to start, because he loves passing, he's unselfish and he's good at it.
"Then it was a couple games into conference that I really started trying to get him deep post catches and just being like, 'Go score it first. You get that deep, we need score it.' I think he's been much more aggressive trying to get deep position than he was earlier, and I think it was my fault."
Krutwig has scored in double figures in 12 of his past 13 games and Loyola is 12-1 over that stretch. His season-highs of 21 points and 13 rebounds both came in a home win against Bradley on Jan. 13.
"It was so easy (fitting in)," Krutwig said. "These guys are great guys. They've been welcoming me ever since the summer, ever since I started coming here for visits. Sometimes maybe you make fun of the freshmen or something like that, but no, not on this team."
Loyola has been dreaming big all season. The Ramblers can earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tourney. Lose and their chances are questionable, at best.
"There's no questions about it if we just win three in a row, right?" Krutwig said. "So that's what we're going to try to do and not leave it up to chance."
Here's the schedule in St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball tournament at Scottrade Center. All games on espn3.com
Thursday's games(8) Evansville vs. (9) Northern Iowa, 6 p.m. (NBCSCH)
(7) Missouri State vs. (10) Valparaiso, 8:30 p.m. (NBCSCH)
Friday's quarterfinals(1) Loyola vs. Evansville/UNI winner, noon (ESPN3)
(4) Drake vs. (5) Bradley, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
(2) SIU vs. Missouri St./Valpo winner, 6 p.m. (ESPN3)
(3) Illinois State vs. (6) Indiana St., 8:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Saturday's semifinalsTop bracket, 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Bottom bracket, 5 p.m. (CBSSN)
Sunday's championship1 p.m. (CBS)