CHICAGO — Turns out Foster Loyer can play in the Big Ten. And that Tom Izzo recruited him for a reason. And that it had nothing to do with charity. Or bribery. Or a connection back in Iron Mountain.
Loyer, Michigan State’s freshman point guard, saved the Spartans Friday afternoon at the Big Ten tournament, in a 77-70 win over Ohio State.
Yes, you read that right. On the day of Nick Ward’s return, Loyer was the story.
The undersized guard dropped a career-high 14 points — making four 3s and a pull-up jumper, each shot released with more confidence than the last.
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It was a stunning performance. This was the player who led Clarkston to consecutive state titles, whose feel and shot and balance could take over the game … at least at the high school level.
Loyer will likely never be that player at MSU. But he showed he can be useful. Maybe more than useful, especially with his deadly shot.
At the very least, he showed he can contribute at the Big Ten level. Put that to rest now.
He surely will.
Do you blame him?
All season he’s heard he didn’t belong. He’s sat on the bench and watched Cassius Winston play close to 40 minutes, to the point of exhaustion, because his coach didn’t trust him.
For good reason. Loyer wasn’t ready. Sometimes even to dribble against physical defenders.
Yet on Friday afternoon, there he was, as relaxed as he’s been in a year, face red from the competition, howling as he kept dropping 3s.
After his fourth, the entire team rose from the bench, screaming. Winston led the celebration. He’d struggled in the first half, which is partly why Izzo had given Loyer an extended chance. Winston also had been battling through a toe and foot injury.
If nothing else, Izzo knows now that Loyer has this in him. That tournament runs sometimes require an eruption from an unexpected place.
There was nothing fluky about what Loyer did against the Buckeyes. He made his first 3, settled in, and started playing basketball.
You could see the relief on his face.
Ward makes a difference. That was obvious. And should’ve been all season.
Some matchups are tougher for him. Like Michigan. Or any team that uses a stretch five and a lot of high-ball screens.
Even so, Ward had shown improvement defending on the perimeter this winter. You could see that when he checked into the game for the first time. Crouching down against guards, eyes wide, stance wider.
He played with a protective wrap on part of his left wrist and hand — his shooting hand. But showed the same touch around the rim despite it.
At one point, after Xavier Tillman struggled to navigate Ohio State’s double teams, Ward provided a tutorial. Collecting the entry pass, faking left, spinning back right, slipping through two bodies while keeping his pivot foot before jumping to lay it in.
[To understand Xavier Tillman’s rise at MSU, start with his daughter]
It was a master class. And MSU will need that from him to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
Ward (8 points, 2 rebounds) also hit a jump shot — something he worked on last summer — and played solid defense in the post.
At his best, he can take over a game down low — he had eight points Friday.
At his most solid, he gives Izzo depth and five more fouls. For games like Friday’s, when Tillman picked up two fouls in the first half and had to sit.
In the last month, that meant minutes for Thomas Kithier, the freshman forward. He’s played fine, at times more than fine.
But he’s not Ward. And when Izzo looked down his bench after Tillman’s second foul, he saw his most talented post player sitting there. Ready and waiting.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.
Published 8:25 PM EDT Mar 15, 2019