By Kaleb Carter
CHICAGO — Ben Schwieger had gone quite a while without playing in regular-season, competitive basketball games. Schwieger wasn’t thrust into a critical role upon his arrival on the Loyola University campus, taking a redshirt season in 2021-22.
This season it’s full steam ahead, and Schwieger looks ready to ramble.
“Playing with more physicality for offense and defense, defensively just dictating where the other team is going to go,” Schweiger said, discussing his immediate priorities for improvement. “And then offensively being aggressive and just keeping that mindset.
“(My) goals as a Rambler, win as many championships as possible, whether it’s our Thanksgiving Myrtle Beach Tournament, bring back a championship,” he added. “Or March Madness winning games and getting some hardware.”
After a quiet first Loyola home game, Schwieger was big early on his way to 14 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in a 70-63 road win over the UIC Flames. He looked somewhat tentative with the ball at times in the first half, but shook that and played with confidence as the game wore on.
“Today is what we wanted to see,” Loyola second-year coach Drew Valentine said after the UIC game. “I thought he was super aggressive and super assertive. Ben is super talented, and the last two games (one exhibition) we’ve played prior to today, he’s looked like a freshman that was scared to mess up or scared to fail. Mess up would be with me, fail would be himself internally.
“I think today he said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to play,’” Valentine continued. “What you guys saw today, that’s what he looked like the last two months of the year on scout team when he started against guys like Lucas Williamson … and Tate Hall, it was like that every day. We’ve been excited about Ben.”
Recruited by Valentine as one of prior Ramblers coach Porter Moser’s former assistants, Schwieger has maintained a steady relationship with the staff.
“Drew was an assistant when he was recruiting me and then got promoted, and I decided to stay because our relationship was really close,” Schwieger said. “When I was in high school it was really close and it continued to stay that way. With all the other coaches, it’s like a family relationship. Everybody’s willing to get in the gym with you whenever you need to.”
Schwieger managed 5 points in 17 minutes of play Thursday versus Tulsa. He did not play in a loss to Boise State Saturday due to experiencing bronchitis. Sunday, he sored 8 points but struggled with 6 turnovers in a 67-51 loss to Texas A&M.
Naperville North graduate and senior Tom Welch is beginning to come into his own after playing a more limited role behind Loyola’s recent string of strong forwards in the program.
Welch was a perfect 14-of-14 from the floor with 25 rebounds through Loyola’s three games (15-of-16 through four games) and is commanding the attention and respect of his teammates. A one-time Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year in boys soccer, Welch has become more vocal and played 23 minutes before fouling out late against UIC.
Welch, who had not averaged more than 10.4 minutes per game over the past three seasons with just one start before this season, has started the first five games for the Ramblers this season. He scored 6 with 6 rebounds vs. Tulsa, but was scoreless in 18 minutes vs. A&M.
“He’s been great all summer. He’s changed his body, he’s guarding better on the perimeter, he’s shooting it better,” Valentine said. “The other day I challenged him after our exhibition game because… you’ve been in the program for four years now. You’re 72-26 in your college career with a Sweet 16 and another NCAA Tournament. Multiple appearances and the other season was a COVID year and he won 20 games.
“So play like it when you’re out on the court,” Valentine continued. “I think he’s commanding the floor more in a leadership role, kind of how (Cameron) Krutwig used to do from the backside. Since he’s stepping up, it takes the burden off our guys. He’s back there directing traffic. I just like how consistent he’s been with his body.”
True freshman and Tuscola grad Jalen Quinn started Friday evening but played less than he did in the opener, in which he scored 9 points in an overtime win over Farleigh Dickinson. Valentine said Quinn was one of few players on the team who has not missed time due to injury or illness. Quinn added 8 points against Tulsa and 4 versus Boise State.
Of those players dealing with time off the court due to knee trouble is Brother Rice grad and senior Marquise Kennedy. Kennedy returned to the court Thursday, scoring 9 points in the loss to Tulsa in 20 minutes. He added 8 points and 7 rebounds in the loss to A&M.
East St. Louis grad Christian Jones played 20-plus minutes for the Flames in the loss to Loyola, tallying 5 steals. One of those steals culminated with a two-handed slam in front of the UIC band. Jones’ energy helped the Flames take a second-half lead they ultimately couldn’t hold on to.
“You can tell players in practice what it’s going to be like. You can show them on film what it’s going to be like, you can go through practice and put them in situations, but when you get game intensity in the moment, that’s when you really have to rely on your training and your experience,” UIC coach and LaSalle-Peru graduate Luke Yaklich said. “For CJ, he’s going to have an incredible career here. He’s long, athletic and he’s figuring out the game and how to use his skills at the college level and his body right now in order to be the best player he can be.
“He competed really hard tonight, and he like everybody else wants to play better,” Yaklich continued. “But CJ, the great thing about him is his acumen is really high. He’s a cerebral player. He’s going to take this and he’s a quick learner.”
The freshman scored 9 points on 4-of-12 shooting Saturday in a loss to Fordham.
UIC announced Monday Nov. 14 that Yaklich’s contract had been extended through the 2025-26 season.
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