CHICAGO – Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston made his first on-court appearance Friday since winning the conference’s highest individual honor for a player on Monday. He backed it up by leading all scorers with 18 points on an efficient 4-of-7 shooting in Michigan State’s 77-70 win over No. 8 seed Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
But it was his backup, 6-foot, 170-pound freshman Foster Loyer, who stole the show.
Michigan State’s 10th man – that’s what Loyer is when you factor in would-be starter Joshua Langford’s season-ending ankle injury – entered the Big Ten Tournament averaging 1.4 points and 0.1 made 3-pointers in a shade over five minutes per game.
He lit up the United Center to the tune of 14 points, including four threes.
“The time you put in at practice and the extra time outside of practice is what’s going to kind of help you go out and succeed on the big stage,” Loyer said, “so it was special.”
Thirty seconds after replacing Winston for the first time with just under 14 minutes remaining in the first half, he found forward Kenny Goins for a jumper in the paint.
Loyer hit his first three of the game a minute later from the left wing – right in front of Ohio State’s bench – then forced a steal from Ohio State’s Luther Muhammad on the other end.
“He looked so smooth and comfortable tonight and definitely saved us in the first half,” Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo said.
Loyer hit a three from each wing before the end of the half, giving him nine points at halftime.
Not bad for a seldom-used freshman who scored just two points in Michigan State’s regular season finale at Michigan.
Loyer was scoreless in the 12 games before that.
“When that first one went in, I knew my shot was feeling good,” Loyer said. “It felt good in warmups and then when the second one went in, I knew I was feeling it a little bit. So then from there, it was a heck of a job by my teammates to get me a few open looks.”
That’s why Winston played a season-low 22 minutes, marking the first time he’s played less than 31 minutes in a game since Feb. 9, which is all the more important as he battles knee tendonitis.
That’s how you get a section full of Spartan fans in section 121 of the United Center holding up signs that read “600 CAREER WINS,” with the phrase “and counting” in smaller print below, honoring Coach Tom Izzo’s milestone victory.
That’s why the toughest media horde to crack inside Michigan State’s temporary locker room was in the corner around a seated Loyer – not Winston, newly-healthy big man Nick Ward or either of the team’s seniors, guard Matt McQuaid and Goins.
The Big Ten Player of the Year didn’t mind sharing his minutes or the spotlight, as he asked Izzo to keep his backup in the game.
“I was geeked today, especially on the bench,” Winston said. “I wasn’t playing really well, I was playing pretty bad. To see Foster going, I was like, ‘Hey, you gotta let him go,’ just because he deserves that moment for a player like that.”
For the record, Winston’s final stat line was 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four turnovers, so “pretty bad” is all relative when you’re playing at an All-America level.
Loyer scored 14 points combined in his previous 19 games, so it’s unfair, unrealistic and frankly unnecessary to ask him to repeat his 14-point performance for projected No. 2 seed Michigan State.
It’s not unfair to say his role has been that of a game-manager, to make a cross-sport comparison to quarterbacks who are asked to make the simple plays in front of them, hand the ball off and don’t turn the ball over.
But if opposing teams now have to worry about the 3-point shooting and active hands on defense for the Big Ten Player of the Year’s backup, who had two steals Friday, then the No. 6-ranked Spartans just got a little bit scarier.
“Every time he goes in, I tell him to hold it down,” Winston said. “So if he can hold it down and also contribute and help the team in a bigger way, then that’s just a bonus for us.”
You could argue the collection of Spartans is greater than the sum of their parts – fueled by the 3-point shooting, assist-minded Winston – especially when considering the injuries to Langford and Ward.
Michigan State’s highest-rated recruit from its 2015, ’16 and ’17 recruiting classes – Jaren Jackson (No. 8, 2017), Miles Bridges (No. 12, 2016) and Deyonta Davis (No. 26, 2015) – are earning professional paychecks.
Langford (No. 19, 2015) is hurt and the team’s highest-rated 2018 recruit, power forward Marcus Bingham Jr. (No. 66), has played in just 22 games this season, averaging less than four minutes per game.
Former walk-on Kenny Goins, a 6-7 fifth-year senior, is the only other player besides Winston who has started every game this season, and he turned himself into a dangerous 3-point shooter during the offseason.
He didn’t attempt a three as a redshirt freshman or sophomore, he was just 4-of-15 last season and he’s 48-of-129 (37.2) after a pair of makes Friday.
He’s reached that point through a combination of increased reps and confidence, both in himself and from his teammates.
“I think once they see you working on it, they trust you more and the more you trust yourself to take it in practice, games, whatever it might be,” Goins said. “You see anyone make a shot, you’re going to want them to shoot again.”
Goins, who scored eight points with two 3-pointers, was one of six players who scored between seven and 14 points, providing a depth of secondary scoring behind Winston.
The top-seeded Spartans will now advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament Saturday as they pursue their first conference tournament title since 2016 after rival Michigan won the last two.
After a first-weekend exit in the last three NCAA Tournaments, this is Michigan State’s chance to build momentum heading into the more important of its two postseason tournaments.
“The (Big Ten) Tournament is good because it gives you a chance to talk about one-and-done,” Izzo said of the win-or-go-home nature of the conference tournament. “The uniqueness of our jobs, different than the NBA, a lot like the NFL, but the other three sports, it’s always best of whatever. And when it’s best of whatever, you’ve always got a safety net.”
There is no safety net for Michigan State or the rest of this year’s NCAA Tournament teams, but its elite point guard play and a veteran rotation of forwards might be the next best thing.