When Tavaras Hardy took over a Loyola men's basketball program that had gone 9-22 during the 2017-18 season and was losing two of its top scorers to graduation, he knew he was taking on a major rebuilding project.
What Hardy did have was the best scorer in the Patriot League. He just didn't know it yet. Junior wing Andrew Kostecka is averaging a conference-best 21.2 points per game for the Greyhounds, who are 8-17 overall and 4-8 in the conference.
"No one was telling me that Drew was going to be our best player coming in. Everybody picked us to finish last in the league," Hardy said. "Nobody picked him on any all-league teams. Drew's gotten in the gym and gotten better. I have a great staff that's been in the gym with him. He's bought into what we're trying to do, and he's seeing the results from it."
Kostecka averaged 11.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game last year, but his best work came on the defensive end. He averaged 2.1 steals and 1.1 blocks en route to earning a spot on the Patriot League All-Defensive Team. Long and lanky at 6-foot-4 and 184 pounds, Kostecka possesses the athleticism and effort necessary to bother ball-handlers, get in passing lanes and alter shots.
Signs that Kostecka was about to bring his offensive game up a notch were evident last offseason. Freshman guard Jaylin Andrews (Boys' Latin) was recruited by Hardy last spring and was hosted by Kostecka during his official visit.
"We played pick-up with him," Andrews said, "and he was just dominating."
Kostecka is shooting 51.4 percent from the field, 38.9 percent from 3-point range and 84.2 percent from the line -- all up considerably from a year ago. He has the touch to get red-hot from the outside, but it's how he utilizes his athleticism that draws one's attention the most.
Blink and you might miss Kostecka trigger a fast break on the defensive end and finish it off by flying through the air to complete an alley-oop. Blink and you might miss him use his quickness to slice through the defense and finish with a two-handed dunk with opposing big men staring up at him. At times, it's as if he's operating at a different level athletically than everyone else.
"I've always been able to jump a little bit, but I think this was the first year where I started to see myself jumping higher and higher every single day," Kostecka said. "This is the first year I've ever jumped off two feet, so I'm getting a lot more dunks than I would've ever gotten in the past. That's a great feeling when you dunk the basketball."
Kostecka has proven to be a solid fit in Hardy's system, which contains principles of the Princeton offense. Hardy played for Bill Carmody, a disciple of the Princeton offense, at Northwestern from 2000-2002. He also coached at Northwestern under Carmody from 2007-2013. Hardy went on to coach at Georgetown from 2013-2016 and at Georgia Tech from 2016-2018.
Defenders can't take their eyes off Kostecka, lest they lose him on a backdoor cut.
"I think it's a great offense for me. It's a lot that you can do. You have to be a very versatile player to play in this offense -- backdoors, you can come off ball screens, you can pop for shots," Kostecka said. "You've got to trust in your teammates to find you when you're open, and at the end of the day you've just got to play hard."
Juniors Chuck Champion (11.6 points per game), sophomore forward Brent Holcombe (11.0), sophomore guard Isaiah Hart (9.0) and junior forward KaVaughn Scott (8.0) are responsible for much of the remaining scoring for Loyola, which has lost five of its last six games. However, the Greyhounds have lost three of those games -- road games at Bucknell Jan. 23, Navy Feb. 2 and Colgate Feb. 9 -- by just three points.
Loyola also made a run at Bucknell, which has won the conference each of the past two years and is 10-2 in the league this year, at Reitz Arena Feb. 6. Down by as many as 15 points in the second half, the Greyhounds used a Kostecka-led 15-2 run to climb to within two points of the Bison before Bucknell pulled away.
The Bison's 84-point output Feb. 6 was representative of the biggest overarching issue for Loyola this year: defense. The Greyhounds are giving up 78.4 points per game and rank ninth in the 10-team Patriot League in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, a college basketball analytics site.
"It's year one. It's a major rebuild," Hardy said. "We've got to teach these guys a lot of different things. There's things that happen in games that we don't have time to work on because there's so many other things we've got to teach. They're learning; they're growing. Obviously this program, it's moving in the right direction. The results will come."
The results have already come for Kostecka, whose team has six regular-season games left before the Patriot League tournament.
"I think every single day we're getting a little bit closer, putting a little more attention to our details," Kostecka said. "I'm pretty confident in this group that we're going to start seeing the results we want to."
Photo Credit: Larry French/Loyola Athletics