Michigan State basketball: Pump the brakes on crowning Foster Loyer as Spartans' 'next' PG
Foster Loyer may have had a monstrous season-opener, but that doesn’t mean that Michigan State is dead-set on its starting point guard for this season.
Despite scoring a career-high 20 points — 6-of-10 from 3-point range — during a career-high 25 minutes, Loyer, a junior, doesn’t have the job in his pocket; he’s more or less holding down the spot until sophomore Rocket Watts fully recovers from what Spartans coach Tom Izzo described as a “bum knee” during Friday’s Zoom call with media.
Watts has no ligament damage, says Izzo, who called the injury a “bone bruise.”
Watts, who has played off the bench in both MSU games so far, hadn’t practiced in 5 days, per Izzo. But if and when the 6-2, 185-pound sophomore is pain free, he’ll certainly be in the mix for the starting PG spot, as well as taking reps as the 2-guard in Michigan State’s offense.
The situation will continue to play out when the Spartans (2-0) face No. 6 Duke tonight (7:30 ET, ESPN).
Izzo, entering his 26th year as head coach, has been lucky during his decades-long reign in East Lansing: He always has one of the best PGs in the Big Ten, sometimes in the country, and always seems to get more out of the position than any other coach in college basketball.
Think back to the days of Kalin Lucas, the 2009 B1G POTY, or even Travis Trice, Drew Neitzel and recently, Cassius Winston — the Spartans have always had a firm understanding of who’s running the show.
This year might be different, though. With Watts’ health status unclear, it’s difficult to say that Loyer — a gangly 6-0, 175 — won’t ultimately hold onto the starting role for the duration of the season. On Saturday, Watts scored 13 points in 20 minutes off the bench, while Loyer scored 3 in 17 minutes during the Spartans’ 80-70 win over Notre Dame.
Whoever emerges, though, will be more than adequate for Izzo. He sees a bit of past greats in both Loyer and Watts — so there is really no wrong decision in this scenario.
However, it seems as if Izzo leans harder toward a healthy Watts at point guard.
“Each one of them are different, you know?” Izzo said, referencing his laundry list of great point guards. “I think Rocket is more like Keith (Appling), where he’s got that jet speed and things like that — maybe doesn’t shoot it quite as well (as Appling) yet. I think Foster is a little bit like a Drew Neitzel … he shoots it really well. And cutting people (defensively) and the athleticism and size, you know, sometimes creates a problem. Foster has improved a ton. I’m asking Rocket to improve both as a 2-guard and as a point guard …”
Typically, it’s taken true Spartans star point guards a year or two to mature. Trice, Winston and Neitzel, among others, didn’t immediately come in and take control — it took some time. They had postseasons that helped mold them into leaders.
Neither Loyer or Watts had the luxury of seeing a national tournament this past season, so they missed out on valuable playing time during the most critical of situations. Izzo’s point men are always battle-tested in that regard, so there is some catching up to do for Loyer and Watts on that front.
But so far, so good, says Izzo. He knows that he won’t have a superstar emerge overnight but remains optimistic that he has the right ingredients in Loyer and Watts. But it’s clear that Izzo is waiting on Watts’ “bum knee” to get right before making a concrete decision.
“So both of those guys are a work in progress. And yet, I’m really impressed by Foster as a captain. He’s been really supportive of Rocket, and Rocket has been supportive of him,” Izzo said. “As I said, we’ve got to get Rocket healthy — that’s my biggest concern right now. He’s been dragging that knee and it’s only because of that bone bruise.
“Eventually, you know, the lineup — it’s going to come more on who comes off the bench best, and what I think our best starting lineup is. Whether we’ve got a defensive lineup or an offensive lineup … those things are going to be determined in the weeks to come.”
Lucas, Neitzel, Trice, Appling, Winston — the names change but the value and importance of the position doesn’t flicker one bit in East Lansing. Michigan State basketball revolves arounds its point guards. Without the benefit of a tournament in 2019-20, and the fact there were no preseason games in 2020-21, the Spartans’ pair of Loyer and Watts have been forced to learn through an accelerated course.
Watts’ injury may prolong the decision, but Izzo likes what Loyer has brought to the fold. He’s been on-par with some of Izzo’s past greats, in terms of learning curve. And so has Watts, who’ll just need more time to find his way into the Spartans’ mix this season.
“Point guards have developed here. I see these guys developing. I think they’ve taken some strides already,” Izzo said. “Rocket’s been slowed because of lack of practice. I think on the other side, Foster has improved because he’s gotten stronger and better defensively, and kind of figuring out when to take a shot and when to make a pass. He’s done a good job running our team.”