Cameron Krutwig grew up watching March Madness on TV, filling out his NCAA tournament bracket, making wagers with his friends and dreaming of someday actually playing in one of those games.
Last weekend in St. Louis, Krutwig and his Loyola teammates realized those dreams when they defeated Illinois State, 65-49, for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship and an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
Krutwig, a 2017 Jacobs graduate, will join a select group of local players when the Ramblers take on their first-round opponent later this week. Loyola will find out who it plays late Sunday afternoon.
Two local players who have been there – Luke Condill and Todd Babington – called the tournament the “pinnacle.” Those who have been there say it’s an experience of a lifetime to play on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“It was pretty much everything March embodies as far as basketball,” said Amanze Egekeze, a 2014 Huntley graduate who went to the tournament with Belmont his freshman season. “It was a great experience, probably the best basketball experience that I’ve ever had.”
Krutwig knows Loyola’s first NCAA tournament trip since 1985 will be special.
“To do it now is huge for these guys and huge for me,” he said. “This is what I wanted when I came here, and we just have to keep it rolling. I don’t want it to end. We’re not just going there just to go there, we’re going there to win some games.”
Just getting there provides indelible memories for the participants.
“My junior year (at Austin Peay) we lost on a last-second shot to go to the tournament, and we had won the (regular-season Ohio Valley) conference (title),” said Babington, a 2004 Prairie Ridge graduate. “One of the reasons I went to Austin Peay was they had gone to the tournament my senior year of high school. I wanted to play in the NCAA tournament. We finally got that chance, and it was so incredible. It’s the
pinnacle of the sport we play in. There was nothing like it. It was like a ’the whole world’s watching’ thing.”
Condill (Crystal Lake Central, 1997) conveyed similar sentiments when he was a sophomore at Weber State in 1999.
“It’s basically ‘Basketball Heaven,’” Condill said. “It’s basically the pinnacle of a basketball experience, because it’s so embedded in our culture. It’s an absolute excitement, a lifetime experience.”
Tom Schafer, a 1983 Jacobs graduate, played in three tournaments (two with Illinois, one with Iowa State) on teams that went 6-3 in the tournament. Schafer played in three Sweet 16s.
Condill and Johnny Moran (Jacobs, 2008) had the thrill of playing for tournament darlings who knocked off heavily favored teams.
Condill was a backup point guard for Weber State, a No. 14 seed, that took down No. 3 North Carolina, 76-74, in 1999.
“When you’re an underdog in the NCAA tournament, if you start to hang around with the higher seed, the crowd will start to shift for your team,” Condill said. “There’s so many different groups of people because there’s games all day. When you hang around, the whole rest of the crowd starts cheering for you. I remember thinking that in the middle of our game. It got extremely loud in there.”
Moran was a Northern Iowa sophomore in the 2010 tournament when the No. 9 Panthers knocked out No. 1 Kansas, 69-67, in the second round. Moran thought the feeling when UNI beat Illinois State in overtime to win the 2009 MVC tournament and make the NCAA tournament was incredible.
“That was something I’ll never forget, but beating Kansas and moving on to the Sweet 16 was almost surreal,” Moran said. “Everything after that was kind of a blur. We went crazy. The entire town of Cedar Falls and the surrounding area were so ecstatic. It was amazing. I wish I could be back there all the time. It was one of the best times of my life.”
ONLY ONE SHOT
Eric Vierneisel (Jacobs, 2004) got his chance to play in the NCAA tournament in 2006 as a sophomore with California.
“That’s one of the main reasons I went to Cal and one of the main reasons I wanted to play in college, to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament,” Vierneisel said. “I wasn’t one of the major contributors that year, I was more of a role guy. To get out there and mix it up a little bit was a dream realized. I wish we could have gone more. You think when you go to college you’re going to play in the NCAA tournament every year.”
Egekeze was close to returning to the tournament this year, but the Bruins lost to Murray State in the OVC tournament final and now hope to receive a National Invitation Tournament bid. The Bruins have been practicing in anticipation of furthering their season, either at the NIT or the College Basketball Invitational.
Although he did not get to end his career in the NCAA tournament, as Babington did, Egekeze has vivid memories from his freshman season. He basically wishes anyone good luck at trying to think of it as “another game.”
“It was definitely different,” Egekeze said. “Especially for me as a freshman, I was still new to college basketball in general. It felt bigger. Seeing all the fans from other schools, how crazy they are about their universities and how they travel. We were in the same region with Duke, Michigan State, Georgia and Virginia. I remember sitting down there watching Michigan State and seeing Magic Johnson across the court.”
Condill played behind Eddie Gill at Weber State, who went on to play seven years in the NBA. So as a freshman and sophomore, Condill did not get a lot of playing time. He did, however, get in for a minute in the Wildcats’ overtime loss to Florida in the second round.
“You wish you would have played more, but just to be able to be involved in college basketball history was quite an experience,” Condill said. “Every once in a while I’ll watch ‘One Shining Moment’ (during the NCAA tournament) and I’ll see our highlights. That was ’99. That’s quite a while.”
But with memories like that, it seems like yesterday.
PUT ON YOUR DANCING SHOES
A look at local athletes who played in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships.
Tom Schafer, Jacobs (1983)
NCAA tournament appearances: Illinois in 1984 and 1985; Iowa State in 1986. His teams went 6-3 and made three Sweet 16s.
1984: Illinois received a first-round bye with a smaller field, then beat Villanova and Maryland before losing in a regional final to Kentucky.
1985: Illinois beat Northeastern, beat Georgia and lost to Georgia Tech.
1986: Iowa State beat Miami (Ohio), beat Michigan and lost to North Carolina State.
Luke Condill, Crystal Lake Central (1997)
NCAA tournament appearance: Weber State in 1999
1999: Weber State, a No. 14 seed, defeated No. 3 North Carolina, then lost to Florida in overtime.
Eric Vierneisel, Jacobs (2004)
NCAA tournament appearance: California in 2006
2006: Cal lost to North Carolina State in the first round.
Todd Babington, Prairie Ridge (2004)
NCAA tournament appearance: Austin Peay in 2008
2008: Austin Peay lost to Texas in the first round.
Johnny Moran, Jacobs (2008)
NCAA tournament appearances: Northern Iowa in 2009 and 2010
2009: Northern Iowa lost Purdue.
2010: Northern Iowa beat UNLV, beat Kansas, then lost to Michigan State. (Northern Iowa was a No. 9 seed and Kansas was a No. 1).
Amanze Egekeze, Huntley (2014)
NCAA tournament appearance: Belmont in 2015
2015: Belmont lost to Virginia in the first round.
Cameron Krutwig, Jacobs (2017)
NCAA tournament appearance: Loyola in 2018
2018: The Ramblers won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and will find out their first-round NCAA tournament opponent Sunday. It is their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985.
THE TIES THAT BIND
Some of the local players who have played in NCAA tournaments know one another in some form or another.
• Johnny Moran played high school basketball with Conrad Krutwig, the older brother of Cameron, who is now the starting center at Loyola. Conrad Krutwig and Tim Moran (Johnny’s brother) were one year behind him at Jacobs.
• Todd Babington is a high school girls basketball coach and special education teacher in Nashville, Tennessee. He has worked the Belmont basketball camp for a few years and met Amanze Egekeze there.
• Luke Condill now trains and coaches basketball players in Dallas. But he spent some time coaching with Illinois Magic and had Cameron Krutwig on his team.
• Egekeze and Cameron Krutwig faced each other twice in the 2014 season, when Egekeze was a senior at Huntley and Krutwig was a freshman at Jacobs.
• Condill (1997), Moran (2007, 2008), Egekeze (2014) and Krutwig (2017) were all Northwest Herald Player of the Year winners.
• Moran broke Eric Vierneisel’s career scoring record at Jacobs.