EAST LANSING — Everything felt surreal.
The carboard cutouts and vinyl banners of Michigan State basketball fans inside a near-empty Breslin Center. The piped-in crowd noise and blaring music. Tom Izzo remaining in his seat most of the night. Foster Loyer starting at point guard and lighting up the scoreboard.
Cue the record scratch.
Foster Loyer? Starting?
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On the opening day of a college basketball season expected to be full of odd sights and sounds, and with the return of Joshua Langford and the debut of Joey Hauser, Loyer emerged as THE story in the 12th-ranked Spartans’ 83-67 win over shorthanded Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night.
While most assumed Rocket Watts would be the heir apparent to Cassius Winston at point guard, it was Loyer who seized the spotlight in his second career start with a career-high 20 points in 25 minutes, making 6 of 10 3-point attempts over the Eagles’ 2-3 zone defense.
“I think that's embracing your role, and just doing whatever you can to put yourself in a position to succeed,” he said. “For me, it was a lot of work this summer just to bear down and get that confidence back shooting the ball and being the facilitator that I know I can be.”
And a day after learning he would start the opener, Loyer came out firing right away.
Named a captain last month, the much maligned 6-foot junior from Clarkston got a good look on MSU’s first possession and clanged one a shot off the back iron. His second attempt was pure, however, and he went on to connect on 5 of 7 3-point attempts and hit a pair of free throws for 17 points by halftime.
His previous career best was 16 points against Western Michigan on Dec. 29, 2019, which was his only other start coming into this season when he replaced a banged-up Winston. That also was his previous high with 21 minutes.
“This is who Foster is,” said Langford, who had 10 points in his first game in nearly two years. “You know he's gonna lead us, he's gonna do his job. And I'm just happy for him, because it's kind of difficult playing behind Cassius because he's such a great player. But one thing about Foster is that he stayed consistent, day in and day out, coming in and doing this job. I'm just happy for him to see him get some reward with the consistency that he's put forward.”
Loyer struggled at times with the size and speed of the college game his first two seasons. He averaged just 7.5 minutes a game last season, mostly giving Winston a brief break sandwiched around timeouts or near the end of halves. The 2018 Michigan Mr. Basketball averaged just 2.9 points and 0.9 assists, even though he shot 45% from behind the 3-point arc.
“I think I think when you're playing that role of just kind of being in the game to be a ball-mover and do things like that, I think you kind of lose sight of what you are, what you do well and things like that. You're trying to fill your role and not make any mistakes and play error-free,” Loyer said. “And I think that's tough, just because as a guard and a guy that's gonna get that extra pass for my teammates, you kind of have to have that mentality of being aggressive. I think it's been it's been a transition getting kind of back to that.”
Loyer took all 10 of his shots from 3-point range and added two rebounds and two assists in 25 minutes. He also picked up four fouls but took two charges on defense.
“That zone is hard to go against,” Izzo said. “If he doesn’t make those shots, we probably really struggle, so that kind of opened some things up got some other guys going. … And Foster played better defensively than he did in the first two years, and I think that keeps him on the floor a little bit more.”
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It is hard to gauge just what this means for MSU moving forward, partly because EMU’s 2-3 zone is a defense the Spartans seldom face and partly because the Eagles had just eight players available. However, MSU finished shooting 42.9% from 3-point range (12 of 28) and 54.5% overall and had 27 assists on 30 made baskets.
“Man, we really shared the ball well. I felt like the ball was moving a whole bunch,” said Aaron Henry, who had a game-best seven assists to tie a personal high. “I feel like we passed up a couple shots, maybe including me, but I felt like the goal of the team was to just get everybody involved and just get used to playing with each other.
Many anticipated Watts would be the starting point guard after starting 16 of his 27 games as a freshman a year ago, to take the role of his former backcourt mate Winston.
But it did not come that easy, at least Wednesday. Watts struggled coming off the bench, making just 1 of 6 shots for two points in 23 minutes while backing up both Loyer and Langford at both guard spots.
“We'll get to the point where we'll figure out who's better coming off the bench and who's not. ... There's not a lot of separation, so it makes it harder on the coach,” Izzo said. “And you hope they start separating themselves, so they make the decision on who starts and who doesn't. But starting is not always the end all, mean all. And what's important is who's playing and what minutes they're playing.”
Loyer, like a good captain and quarterback, agreed with his coach.
“That's something I think I've been working for this entire summer. And if it wasn't the case, it wasn't the case. I wasn't gonna let that bring me down,” he said of getting the start. “I think no matter what role — starting or coming off the bench — I think it's just gonna be my job to come in and do what I can do, whether that's facilitating or making shots.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's Foster Loyer seizes starting, starring role in opener