This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Norfolk State from the MEAC. You can also check out prior installments on Delaware, Nicholls State, Mount St. Mary’s, and South Dakota. The next program in our series is Loyola basketball out of Baltimore. Tavaras Hardy just wrapped up his third season leading the Greyhounds as he continues to build the program up.
Hardy improved Loyola’s win total in each of his first two seasons prior to the pandemic season of 2020-21. This past season was a whole new challenge, though, as the Patriot League decided against non-conference games for its members outside of Army and Navy. The Greyhounds ended the season at 6-11, with all games coming against fellow league opponents. I had the chance to talk to Hardy about how he tried to prepare and continue to develop his group in an abbreviated season.
The Story of the 2020-21 Loyola Basketball Program
Every conference was tasked with figuring out how to safely play games in 2020-21. The power leagues decided to press on with a normal schedule at the cost of plenty of rescheduled games. The Ivy League decided not to play basketball (or any sport) for the athletic year. The Patriot League compromised by deciding on a league-only schedule.
“Our players left shortly after the season the year before,” Hardy said, “and we didn’t get guys back until November or December of last year. That was the biggest challenge for us, just getting everybody back and trying to play catch up.”
The 2020-21 season pressed on for most Division I teams in late November and December. However, Loyola was just getting warmed up. You may think that having to watch everyone else play could be discouraging. However, Hardy kept things in perspective.
“It was strange,” he said, “but across the board it wasn’t consistent for anyone. Even teams that were eligible to play, certain teams weren’t playing at all either because they kept getting positive COVID tests. It came down to the safety of our student-athletes, so we have to respect the fact that our leadership was looking for the safest and most efficient route…to compete.”
Time to Play…Almost
As the month of December pressed on, Loyola basketball tried to get ready for their Patriot League season. However, injuries and positive COVID tests prevented any chance to create continuity.
“We couldn’t get a consistent practice pretty much the whole year,” stated Hardy. “We didn’t know what we were going to have when we finally did start in January. We started the season without our starting point guard, starting two guard, and backup point guard. We were trying to get creative and find a way to make it work.”
Finally, the calendar flipped to 2021, and it was time for the Greyhounds to take the court. Except they couldn’t. As if the team hadn’t waited long enough, they endured another COVID pause, which canceled their series’ against American and Navy.
“It was a little bittersweet,” Coach said. “The guys wanted to play, but if we had played that first game we were going to be missing a lot of guys. We probably would’ve been missing Santi Aldama and Jaylin Andrews in addition to all of the guards.”
The long wait finally ended against Lafayette on January 16th. However, as Hardy and his staff continued to piece things together, the Greyhounds started 0-5. However, four of those games were only decided by one possession.
“Each game we had given ourselves a chance,” stated Hardy. “Even with the guys we had, we were starting a walk-on point guard and a freshman who didn’t even get a pre-season or a summer, and that was our backcourt. That was just a product of something that our guys had to grow into, but they did.”
Loyola finally earned their first win against that same Lafayette team in early February.
Continuing to Grow
From that point on, Loyola continued to alternate between wins and losses in their remaining games. The Patriot League chose to play back-to-back games like many other mid-major conference across the country. Hardy tried to keep his team focused as they played the same team in a 24-hour span.
“So much of the game is mental,” he said. “For our guys, it was trying to keep them focused whether you win or lose, it’s a whole new day and a brand new opportunity. The next day is not going to be the exact same no matter what you did.”
Loyola finished the regular season at 4-10, which put them as the ninth seed in a 10 team league for the conference tournament. However, the fun was just beginning for the Greyhounds, as they played Cinderella in their league. Hardy and his team took down top-seeded Navy in their fourth match-up of the season. Then, they toppled Army before giving all they could against a Colgate team that would push Arkansas to the limit in the NCAA Tournament a few days later.
“We were feeling like this group was getting better,” stated Hardy. “Our record didn’t show it, but we felt as a squad we were coming together. We were starting to play Loyola basketball the way it needed to be played.”
Reflecting Back on Loyola Basketball
Even though the Greyhounds came one game short of March Madness, Hardy was proud of the resiliency his group showed through everything.
“They pushed through a lot of challenges and they still fought,” he stated. “That was important for that group to show resiliency and keep battling through and showcase that they can fight through pretty much anything.”
Meanwhile, Hardy still felt like he was able to make progress as he continues to build Loyola basketball into a consistent program in the Patriot League.
“This is a process,” Coach said. “We didn’t get that time to develop in the off-season, so you’re spending time trying to develop during the season, which is not easy, but our guys did. They got better as we continued to flow and that’s what we want out of our program. We want to continue to get better and develop.”
It’s safe to say that this past season was just a roadblock on the journey to the goals Hardy has for Loyola. He and his team have come out stronger for everything they endured in 2020-21. All the experience from this past season should only help the Greyhounds push towards the top of the Patriot League moving forward.