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Loyola’s Aundre Jackson — unselfish and then some — is no ordinary sixth man

SAN ANTONIO — Loyola’s Aundre Jackson can close his eyes and hear the words:

“A 6-5 forward from Kennedale, Texas, No. 24, Aundre . . .”

How sweet and magical the sound of that would’ve been to the ears of a senior in the final hour of his college career. What a moment it would’ve been for a Lone Star baller to be introduced as a starter in a Final Four game at the Alamodome.

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Senior Aundre Jackson — Loyola's unselfish sixth man. (AP/Eric Gay)

“I mean, it would’ve been a dream come true,” he said.

But Jackson — the Ramblers’ leading scorer, at 12.3 points per game, in this NCAA Tournament — will come off the bench in the national semifinal Saturday against Michigan, as he has done since the 14th game of the season. During the team’s walkthrough before a late-December game against Evansville, coach Porter Moser told his players how things were going to change. Senior guard Ben Richardson would be back in the lineup from an injury, and the starters would be four perimeter guys and one big lug in the post.

The big lug: 6-9, 260-pound freshman Cameron Krutwig, who’d begun the season in a reserve role.

“Coach said, ‘This is the five we’re going with, and we’re going to see how it works out,’ ” Krutwig said. “Dre didn’t even bat an eye, didn’t blink an eye. He was fine with it. We didn’t even have a discussion about it. He’s just a cool guy and one of my good friends on the team. There wasn’t bad blood or anything like that.”

Bad blood has had no place, of course, in this winning mix that makes the Ramblers so special. Yet Krutwig happens to be slightly off — give him a break, he’s a freshman — in his assessment of Jackson’s reaction. Moser didn’t frame it as a demotion, and in most respects it wasn’t. His minutes have remained close to what they were before. He might play more against Michigan’s athletic, versatile 6-11 star Mo Wagner than Krutwig does.

But Jackson had done the off-the-bench thing as a junior and done it well enough to be the Missouri Valley Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year. All players want to start, and Jackson — who averaged 14.1 points and shot 66.9 percent from the field, fourth-highest in the nation, last season — rightly expected to as a senior.

Yeah, for a while it felt like a demotion.

“There was some tension,” Jackson said.

That it didn’t last is a credit to him and, quietly, one of the keys to Loyola’s season. Team Good Vibes isn’t only about the handsome, charming Moser, boyhood pals Richardson and Clayton Custer and — what’s her name again? — dear Sister Jean. Among other things, it’s also about the dynamic between Jackson and Krutwig, Krutwig and Jackson; the order doesn’t so much matter.

“Going into this year, I had big hopes and dreams — like winning all-conference, probably winning player of the year in our conference,” Jackson said. “But taking a back seat to Cam, who’s a great player, and we still have success? I can’t be mad at that.”

During a five-game stretch from late November through the Ramblers’ celebrated upset victory at then-fifth-ranked Florida in December, Jackson averaged 19.2 points and shot 30-for-42 (.714) from two-point range and 11-for-14 (.786) from three-point range. At that point, he wasn’t merely a starter. He was the Ramblers’ best player.

How often does a guy put up numbers like those only to lose his starting gig?

“There are times when Krutwig’s rolling, you know, and Aundre might play 17, 18 minutes,” Moser said. “Does that mean it doesn’t bother him? I know it’s bothering him. But the team is bigger than one person, and he’s the best example of that.”

Every team in this tournament has talked about its unselfishness. No player out there walked the walk more than Jackson.

“Not one time did he complain,” Moser said. “Not one time did he walk into my office and say, ‘Coach, can we talk about me not starting?’ Never once. Not once.”

Krutwig calls his relationship with Jackson a “brotherhood.” Krutwig is the starter, but there’s no doubt who’s the big brother.

“He took me under his wing,” Krutwig said.

He’s as much of an MVP as the Ramblers have.

“Great things come with sacrifice,” Jackson said. “Everybody has given up something to help us get to where we are.”

But only Jackson lost his spot. He’ll be reminded of that as the names of the Ramblers’ starting five bounce around a football stadium in Texas. Will it bother him? Maybe a little.

He darn sure won’t show it if it does.