Niyo: MSU Loyers up as freshman guard rewrites his image with breakout game

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Foster Loyer (3) shoots a 3-point basket during the first half.

Chicago — “Where’s Foster?”

In the moment, it sounded like a punchline Friday afternoon, as freshman Thomas Kithier changed out of his uniform a few feet away from a massive media scrum in the corner of Michigan State’s locker room.

Hidden somewhere behind all the TV cameras and reporters was his roommate, Foster Loyer, fielding repeated questions about his breakout performance in the Spartans’ Big Ten quarterfinal win over Ohio State at the United Center.

But Kithier actually wasn’t cracking jokes about Loyer’s newfound fame following a season-best effort off the bench that sparked Michigan State’s 77-70 victory. Instead, he was parroting the daily refrain around the campus digs he shares with Loyer back in East Lansing.

“He’s never at the apartment,” Kithier said, laughing. “It’s ‘Where’s Foster?’ And the answer is always, ‘He’s shooting at the gym.’ Every night he’s on the gun, shooting. … And I’d say the last 3-4 weeks, he’s been relentless on it.”

For most of this winter, that’s been the drill, Loyer getting shots up on his own time, keeping graduate assistant Chris Fowler busy inside Breslin Center at odd hours, sometimes seven days a week.

“Usually 200-300 makes in the morning,” Loyer says, “and probably 200-300 more makes at night.”

Whatever it takes, he figures, to keep his confidence up in the middle of an emotionally trying freshman year, with the playing time scarce and mostly humbling.  

'Feeling it'

Loyer, who only a year ago was celebrating a second straight state championship at Clarkston as Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, hadn’t found much success in a supporting role this season. From that stage-fright moment in November against Louisville to mop-up duty in Big Ten play, it was hard to watch at times.

A guy who scored 2,222 points in his prep career and averaged 41 points in last year’s Class A Final Four at Breslin Center had scored in double figures just once as a freshman at Michigan State. He’d played more than 10 minutes in a game just twice in January and February. And entering Friday’s Big Ten tournament opener, Loyer was just 4-for-20 from behind the 3-point line for the season, his last make coming on Jan. 13 in a runaway win at Penn State.

So, naturally, the 6-foot, 170-pound guard drilled his first five shots Friday afternoon — four of them 3-pointers, including three late in the first half — as the top-seeded Spartans shook off a sluggish start in a foul-plagued game and advanced to today’s semifinals against Wisconsin.

“It was a special feeling,” said Loyer, who finished with a career-high 14 points, three assists, two steals and even drew a couple critical offensive fouls on Ohio State. “When that first one went through, it was a little bit of a weight lifted off my shoulders. And as the next one went in, I was feeling it a little bit.”

By the time he drilled his third — a step-back 3-pointer from NBA range to regain the lead for Michigan State with 4:04 to play in the first half — everyone in the United Center knew it. Loyer’s swagger was back, and after he drew a charging foul on Ohio State’s Keyshawn Woods at the other end of the court, he headed back to the bench while a grinning Winston applauded near the scorer’s table. Loyer grabbed a towel, took some good-natured ribbing as the Spartans’ “bench mob” surrounded him, and then turned to one of his teammates, Connor George, and deadpanned, “Hey, I work on my craft.”

“We needed a little bit of a spark in the first half,” he explained later, “and I was just happy I was able to provide it.”

But it was a “surreal” feeling, he admitted. Here he was, near the end of a mostly forgettable freshman season, suddenly stealing the spotlight from Winston, the newly-crowned Big Ten player of the year.

Let 'em talk

Winston, already dealing with tendinitis in his knee, was slowed just a bit more Friday by a toe injury he suffered in the regular-season finale against Michigan. He didn’t practice much this past week, and Izzo wasn’t at all happy with some of his floor leader's decision-making early in this game, as Winston turned down shots, dribbled into traffic and turned it over three times in a dozen first-half minutes.

“But here comes Foster Loyer, you know?” Izzo said. “Maybe Foster thinks he’s back in East Lansing at the Breslin Center in the state tournament where he averaged 40 a game. Maybe it's March time for him. Maybe that's what he figured. Because … he looked so smooth and comfortable tonight and definitely saved us in the first half.”

So much so Friday that “one time I told Cassius to go in,” Izzo recalled, “and he said, ‘Leave him in, Coach.'"

So Izzo did. And why not, the way Loyer was playing. This wasn’t just a few minutes of survival mode with a backup giving Winston a rest. No, the way Michigan State’s junior point guard saw it Friday, Loyer came in and “elevated” the team.

“Today, he played much better than I did,” Winston said. “That’s big.”

And not just for the immediate future, as this banged-up Michigan State squad advanced to another weekend in the Big Ten tournament, with the NCAAs right around the corner.

No, this could have far-reaching effects for Loyer, who is well aware of the criticism that was out there, with fans and media questioning whether he’d ever develop into a capable Big Ten guard after the way he'd played this season.

“But people’s comments aren’t gonna bother me,” Loyer insisted, shrugging. “Because I know that I can play, I know what I have inside of me, and I know what I can do. …

“Coming into Michigan State, playing behind the Big Ten player of the year, I knew it was gonna be a grind. I knew it was gonna be a learning experience. The biggest thing for me is just to stay confident in myself, and to put in the hard work to be able to be confident. And I’ve always done that throughout the year.”

Still, it was nice to see some of that hard work pay off, and for his pal Kithier, the highlight probably came in the second half when Loyer curled off a Kenny Goins screen and pulled up for a jumper over Ohio State’s Luther Muhammad, capping a 9-0 run and bringing the Michigan State bench to its feet once more. His close-knit freshmen teammates were roaring – “All I remember was Gabe (Brown) dancing and Marcus (Bingham) doing this little jig thing,” Kithier laughed — and the Spartans' starters were laughing and high-fiving each other.

Where was Foster? Right here, making sure everyone took notice.

 “I don’t know what I’m gonna do later — probably buy him a Slurpee or something,” Kithier said. “I’m so happy for him. That was fun to watch.”

Twitter @JohnNiyo