With just one weekend left until the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) tournament, No. 21 Loyola men’s basketball hosts Southern Illinois University at Gentile Arena Feb. 26-27. Despite being the final two games on the schedule, the series could have seeding implications for both teams heading into Arch Madness.
Carried by one of the best defenses in the country, the Ramblers are currently in a tie for first place in the conference with Drake University. However, as it stands, Loyola would lose the tiebreaker and be the No. 2 seed in the MVC tournament.
The Ramblers have allowed the fewest points per game in the entire country this season, holding opponents to 55.7 points on average. Southern Illinois head coach Bryan Mullins said he thinks the experience of Loyola’s roster has been a key factor in the Ramblers’ success.
“They’ve been at the top of the league the whole season and it’s because they have a ton of experience,” Mullins said. “They’ve got great leadership. They play extremely well on both sides of the ball. They’ve committed to the defensive end this year and I think it shows how they’re winning consistently.”
But the Ramblers’ strengths go beyond just their defense. Loyola’s field goal percentage of 51.1 percent and its 15.8 assists per game both lead the MVC. Offensively, Loyola runs through senior center Cameron Krutwig. The big man from Algonquin averages a team-high 15 points on 58.5 percent shooting. His 6.6 rebounds and three assists per game also pace the team.
“They have great ball movement,” Mullins said. “They’re all unselfish guys. Obviously it starts with Krutwig. He’s such a unique player. Coaching him, I know what type of person he is and he’s a great leader for them.”
Before taking the head coaching job at Southern Illinois in 2019, Mullins served as an assistant coach on Loyola head coach Porter Moser’s staff.
While Mullins praised Krutwig, Moser thought he might have his hands full with the Salukis’ frontcourt. Moser specifically mentioned the battle between Krutwig and Southern Illinois’ first-year center Kyler Filewich. Similar to Krutwig, Moser said Filewich is difficult to guard due to his proficiency as a scorer and a passer.
“[Filewich has] got a good pace to his game, he doesn’t get sped up,” Moser said. “[Krutwig] doesn’t get sped up. They’re lefties, they’re good IQ players. There are a lot of similarities. [Filewich] holds his ground down there and he doesn’t look like a freshman getting pushed off the block, he’s the one doing the pushing.”
Filewich is averaging 7.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game this season.
However, the Salukis might be without their leading scorer, Marcus Domask. The sophomore forward was averaging 16.3 points per contest, but he’s been battling a foot injury and hasn’t played a game since Jan. 4.
On a teleconference call Feb. 23, Mullins said Domask’s availability was still uncertain. However, he’s been going through non-contact practice with the chance of upgrading to more physical practice later in the week.
On paper, the Salukis will need all the help they can get in the upcoming matchup. The Ramblers are ranked as the No. 10 team in the country, according to the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). Meanwhile, the Salukis are No. 235 out of the 347 Division I teams in the rankings.
Loyola has also been especially dangerous at home recently. The Ramblers have won 20 consecutive games at Gentile Arena — the fifth-longest active streak in the country.
While easier said than done, picking up wins over Loyola could be beneficial to the Salukis’ seeding at Arch Madness. Southern Illinois enters the series in a three-way tie for seventh place, but the University of Evansville and Valparaiso University are both just a game ahead of the Salukis.
There’s significant incentive to finish in the top-six spots in the conference since those teams get a bye in the first round of the conference tournament, while the bottom four teams don’t.
Tip-off between the Ramblers and Salukis is scheduled for 8 p.m. Feb. 26 and 5 p.m. Feb. 27. The Feb. 26 game is set to be broadcast on CBS Sports Network, while the Feb. 27 game is slated to air on ESPN2.