On Selection Sunday, Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo got off the bus back from Indianapolis, held a quick meeting with his team, drove home, sat in the sauna for a little and found himself turning on his TV to watch the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship.
He watched not to scout Davidson, a team ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected as a likely opponent for the Spartans in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and definitely not for Richmond, who broke an 11-year tournament appearance drought with a pair of free throws, pulling out the 64-62 bid-stealing win.
Rather, he turned on his TV just to watch Davidson senior guard Foster Loyer, the same one he’s been watching all year.
“I’ve been a Foster fan before, during and I will be after,” he said of his former point guard on Sunday night.
A couple of hours after Izzo watched Loyer miss a potential game-winning three in the final seconds, Michigan State got their long-awaited notice. The team is heading down to Greenville, South Carolina, for a first-round bout against at-large Davidson on Friday night and, yes, a reunion with a resurgent, familiar face.
“Shazam,” Izzo said on Sunday night. “That’s the way it works out.”
A storyline that’s been tossed around ever since the Wildcats made some serious noise with a 15 game win streak has finally come to fruition. Loyer, a Clarkston, Michigan native, consensus four-star prospect and 2018 Mr. Basketball winner, entered the transfer portal on April 19, 2021, after a messy season in East Lansing and ended up leaving for Davidson in a “great way.”
The destination at the end of his long, winding journey has been one of the better stories in a season chock full of great ones. Loyer averaged 16.3 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game and picked up Atlantic 10 Second Team All-Conference honors in an increased role and free-flowing system that’s seen him thrive in an unlikely place and beautiful fashion.
Now, back in a spotlight that hasn’t always been the kindest to him, Loyer’s got a crack at his old team, and few have missed the unique significance of this storybook moment. Izzo said the matchup was “nice for TV,” and CBS certainly recognized that, giving the game a 9:40 p.m. tip time with their all-star crew of Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery on the call.
The only problem? It’s a narrative Izzo won’t be embracing, if only for his players and Loyer’s sake.
“I’m not gonna make this a Foster Loyer (versus) Tom Izzo (thing),” he said. “That puts pressure on Foster, too. You’re in the NCAA Tournament, it should be exciting, you should enjoy it, and I know our players probably felt a little weird.”
On Monday, his tone hadn’t shifted. Izzo brought up an uglier concern dating back to last season’s tumult and the backlash that came with it.
“That’s the only thing that would ruin this for me is if people were like they were when he was here because I thought that was completely asinine,” Izzo said. “I just hope and pray that the same idiots that attacked him when he was here sometimes don’t try to do that now, and that’s what I’m worried about.”
With tipoff four days out, the talk of Michigan State’s tournament opener shifts squarely to a former player Izzo hopes will find his way back to East Lansing as a graduate assistant and kick off a potential coaching career. While noting Davidson would be thoroughly prepared with or without Loye,r and there are far more factors in play, Izzo highlighted the tendencies that made him a natural fit as a de facto assistant coach for the Spartans after a shoulder injury ended his 2020-21 season early.
“Listen, I’ve had great respect for Foster since he was in ninth grade,” Izzo said. “I do think he’s a coach on the floor. I think he’s as smart a guy as I’ve ever played against. (Davidson Head Coach Bob McKillop) should use him in their scouting report, he’s probably more valuable than their assistants, and that’s no insult to their assistants, but he knows our players, he knows me, he knows our plays.”
He also noted the qualities that could hurt his team on the court.
“If anybody fouls him, I’m gonna probably take that kid out of the game because I know he’s not missing a free throw,” Izzo said with a smile.
As for his players? It’ll be fun to see their old teammate and captain “Frosty,” as junior forward Malik Hall called him. Of the group that played with him, all said they’ve reached out to Loyer with varying degrees of frequency this season and made an effort to watch as many of his games in the red and black as possible.
Some of the specifics: like Izzo, Hall tuned in for the final ten minutes of the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship to catch Loyer in action. Senior forward Gabe Brown said himself, senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. and Loyer treat each other like brothers as members of Michigan State’s 2018 recruiting class and talk about once a week. Sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard noted he only had one season with his predecessor at point guard but added he’s as much a fan of him as any of his teammates, chatting with him in an old group chat from time to time.
Redshirt senior Joey Hauser was Loyer’s roommate last season and one of his better buddies, as they helped each other through the troubles presented in a season marred by COVID-19. In turn, he said Loyer’s success this season is awesome and mentioned how they both discussed the excitement of a potential first-round matchup last week.
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While happy for him, Hauser said he knows a switch has to get flipped come Friday night.
“Foster’s obviously our buddy … so (we) got a lot of respect for him,” he said. “But, once we’re on the court, we wanna win at all costs.”
The storyline will sit and wait until then. Heading into his favorite season, Izzo echoed Hauser’s sentiment when asked how he’d treat it when March really begins.
“On that night, I’m not gonna like him any more than he’s gonna like me,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the tournament. It’s not always liking, it’s respecting your opponent. He’ll have (our) total respect.”
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