East Lansing — As impressive as Michigan State’s run to the Final Four last season was, it came at the price of running Cassius Winston into the ground.
There’s no doubt the second-team All-American was the best player on the floor most games, but he was probably also the most worn out, averaging 38 minutes a game in the NCAA Tournament.
In each of the final two games of the season — a win over Duke in the Elite Eight and a loss to Texas Tech in the Final Four — Winston played all 40 minutes, and that came after playing 39 minutes against LSU in the Sweet 16 and the same amount the first-round win over Bradley. His only “light” load came in the second round against Minnesota when he played 32 minutes.
It was a pattern that played out for the bulk of conference play and by the end, Winston was hobbling on a balky knee. It’s something Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is determined to avoid this season, which means someone will have to spell Winston.
Enter sophomore Foster Loyer, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2018 who could now be in the position to be the key to keeping arguably the best player in the country fresh.
“I think it’s going to be something interesting to see,” Loyer said at Michigan State’s media day this week. “I think I’ve definitely put in the work this offseason to put myself in that position of whether being able to play with Cassius or in his backup minutes, but regardless of how that works out, doing whatever I can to put my team in the best position to win.”
It was tough for Loyer to do that last season. He arrived at Michigan State as one of most storied players in state high school history and had just led Clarkston to a second straight state championship by scoring 40 points in the title game against Holland West Ottawa.
However, at barely 6-foot and generously listed at 170 pounds, Loyer wasn’t quite ready for the rigors of Big Ten basketball, leading to sporadic playing time and finishing the season averaging just 5.8 minutes a game. But a commitment during the offseason has the Spartans hoping Loyer can assume a larger role this season as Michigan State enters as one of the favorites to win the national championship.
“Foster Loyer has gained 20 pounds from last year, which he needed to do,” Izzo said. “(He) can really still run a team. The same issues that Cassius had as a freshman, Foster has. Can he guard people and get better at that? He's done that. The added strength has helped. So he's made progress."
There will likely be plenty of options for Izzo in the backcourt this season. He can play Winston and Loyer together while the return of senior Joshua Langford at the shooting guard spot will be critical. There’s also the arrival of heralded freshman Rocket Watts, a combo guard who figures to see some time at the point.
“I think you'll see a combination of Foster and Rocket can play the two or some point,” Izzo said. “Cassius can actually play the two, and sometimes that would get him off the pressure of being on point the whole time with people just nagging him, and he'll be able to come off screens instead of having to create everything. So we do feel we can move some guys around. Foster does run the team, can make shots, and Rocket, he can really guard, and he really can pass the ball and make shots.”
However it plays out, Loyer knew he had to make a jump in the offseason. He needed to be able to defend at a competent level, and to that, he had to get stronger. He also had to become more comfortable in the offense, something that didn’t come as easily in his freshman season.
There were glimpses of what Loyer could become, namely his performance in the Big Ten tournament against Ohio State when he scored a career-high 14 points by going 5-for-7 from the field, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range in a season-high 18 minutes.
Getting that sort of production every night won’t be necessary this season, but knowing he can be counted on for that when needed is. Loyer believes entering his second season he’s in a position to deliver on those expectations.
“I think just being around our guys, being around our system,” Loyer said. “I’m getting a feel for not only how to play with certain guys, but also our coaches, as well. I think this spot right here compared to last year I feel a lot more confident about not only my basketball ability, but just the ability to go out there and help our team win in whatever way needs to be done.”