Back home in Spain this offseason, Santi Aldama couldn’t wait to get back to Loyola and his basketball teammates in Baltimore. The feeling was mutual.
The Greyhounds returned to campus during the last week of September and are looking like a team to be reckoned with in the Patriot League this winter. Aldama, a 6-foot-11 forward, is one of several big reasons why, but not the only one.
“I think we have a very good team, very disciplined,” the sophomore said. “I feel like we have a group of players that are committed, and we all want the same thing and that is to win.”
Injuries ravaged the Greyhounds last year during a 15-17 campaign. But down the stretch after Aldama returned from arthroscopic knee surgery, Loyola won six of its last 10 games, and all the losses were by five points or less.
“I feel really good about where we are,” said third-year coach Tavaras Hardy, who has upped the Greyhounds’ win total each season. “We still have some things to figure out and with COVID and the lack of access this spring and summer. We could be further ahead with more time on the court.”
That 2020 separation reality is true for all college basketball teams this year, but Loyola has plenty of young talent heading into the new season. The Greyhounds had three players named to the Patriot League’s All-Freshman team last year in Aldama, Golden Dike (Spain) and Cam Spencer (Loyola Blakefield).
Throw in junior guard Jaylin Andrews, who made the 2018-19 Patriot League All-Freshman team, and Hardy deserves some laurels for his recruiting thus far.
“Once we get this season going, I think we can hit the ground running and have a lot of success,” Hardy said.
Aldama is the literal centerpiece. He averaged 15.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.7 blocked shots in his 10 games last year after coming back from patellar tendon surgery. He was never completely healthy, and not even so last summer when he was the Most Valuable Player of the FIBA U18 European Championships while leading Spain to the gold medal.
“He was banged up most of the year and he never got to showcase his full package of skills,” Hardy said. “He’s a special talent. He’s 6-[foot]-11, maybe 7 feet by now, and just extremely versatile.”
There’s a good reason for Aldama’s diverse basketball skill set. His basketball roots run deep: his father Santiago Aldama Aleson was a pro player in Spain and Portugal and a long-tenured member of the Spanish National Team, playing in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona against the famed U.S. “Dream Team.” His uncle, Santiago Toledo, was also a European pro.
And while Loyola’s Aldama was always big, he didn’t grow up playing that way. He played point guard when he first picked up the game as a child, and then moved to the wing before now blossoming on the low block. His game still flourishes all over the court, and that could make him a nightmare around the Patriot League and beyond.
“I bring a little bit of everything,” he smiled. “I think it’s more dangerous to do a little bit of everything. The other team doesn’t know what to do.”
Foes’ befuddlement involving Aldama is more frequent than most might imagine. Part of it is also that he and Dike, his longtime teammate on the Spanish national team, often like to communicate in their native tongue on the court, keeping opponents guessing about what they’re up to.
“No one knows what they’re saying out there,” Spencer laughed. “I don’t speak a lick [of Spanish], but I might take some Spanish classes now.”
And now the Greyhounds have another Spaniard in 6-foot-10 freshman Alonso Faure. Much of the credit goes to assistant coach Ivo Simovic, a Serbian who coached in Spain, knew Aldama’s father and served as an international scout for the San Antonio Spurs in what is already a distinguished coaching career.
“He has tremendous ties over there [in Spain],” Hardy said. “He is well-respected, well-loved and he has really put Loyola on the map in regard to the international scene.”
And Hardy thinks if the pandemic hadn’t scuttled the European championships this past summer, folks would be talking about Faure the same way they talked about Aldama being a “recruiting steal” last year.
Simovic opened the door to the high-profile Spanish recruits, but Hardy’s vision and Loyola’s mission closed the deal.
“I had to decide if I was coming to the States because I had never been here,” Aldama said of his recruitment. “As soon as I got here I really liked it from the first minute. I talked to the coaches and we were on the same page. I love the energy on campus, though it’s sad now without all the people.”
A hungry competitor, Aldama struggled with not being able to play most of last season as he rehabbed his knee. His other struggle also involved hunger.
“The hardest thing for me was eating dinner so early,” he said of adapting to life in the United States. “At home, I ate at 9:00 or 9:30, so here I’d have to eat again or go to bed hungry.”
Aldama has a team chock-full of guys who want to feed him, including Spencer, who roomed with him and Dike last year.
“Santi is so versatile,” Spencer said. “He’s 7 feet and can shoot the ball. He’s a great passer and does a little bit of everything. Especially in the Patriot League, he’s really got that size factor. He makes us very dangerous.”
Spencer averaged 10.0 points, a team-high 3.13 assists, and proved himself a perfect fit in Hardy’s precision offense. Unfortunately, a bone in Spencer’s hip didn’t fit as perfectly in his hip socket, and Spencer had to undergo surgery in June. He had just started running again in September but could be a full-go by the end of November when college basketball turns the lights back on.
The Greyhounds went 1-8 when Spencer missed nine games last season. He’s got an athletic lineage, too. Older brother Pat was a four-time lacrosse All-American at Loyola and the 2019 Tewaaraton Award winner as the nation’s top player. He set the NCAA record for assists before trading in his cleats for sneakers and playing a year of basketball at Northwestern.
Dike, Loyola’s other key sophomore returnee, is a 6-foot-10, 250-pound load down low and can do a lot of the dirty work to free Aldama to do his thing all over. Dike played in all 32 games last year, starting six and averaging 7.0 points and a team-high 5.2 rebounds per game. He shot 58.9 percent from the field but just 46 percent from the line.
“Golden is going to be a great player for us,” Hardy said. “Unlike Santi, he was thrown into the fire last year. He split time to help bring him along and get him acclimated to the way we play here. He’s a very good passer. He’s unselfish. He’s big and strong and there are things we can help him improve upon and gain confidence like [with] free throw shooting.”
That’s the theory in a nutshell for Loyola and Greyhounds basketball. Bring a lot of people from all over with similar goals together and let them go to work.
“It’s really cool because I had never played with anybody from another country,” Spencer said. “We come from all over. It’s really cool. Learning about their culture has been pretty neat.”
Photo Credit: Hannahhally Photography