Omaha, Neb. — Marcus Foster is cut now and more confident in himself.
That's what stands out as I sit across from him at a table in Creighton's practice facility.
Three years ago, we sat down for a similar interview at Kansas State's practice facility.
Only, the subject then was how an unranked guy out of a small Texas town had become one of the best freshmen basketball players in America.
"I was driven so hard," Foster says of his freshman year. "I remember I didn't think I'd be able to play at that level, so I worked so hard and I ended up being very good."
This time around, I'm in Omaha to find out what went wrong at Kansas State and how Foster returned to relevancy.
"I had to get back to the gym and just loving the game of basketball," Foster says.
The thing Foster seems to love more than anything else about this game is getting buckets. Later in the day, he stands on the right wing at CenturyLink Center and drains threes in a shooting contest against Creighton reserve forward Toby Hegner.
After every make, Foster declares to Hegner: "This is a shooter's game!"
The shooter is back—Creighton's leading scorer at 18.6 points per game—and in a few weeks he'll be getting buckets again in the NCAA tournament.
The route just happened to take a detour.
To understand what went wrong, it's important to begin with how Marcus Foster arrived.
Foster showed up at Kansas State motivated by fear and recruiting rankings.
He had scored 2,388 points at Hirschi High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, averaging 27.1 points per game as a senior, but he was not ranked on any of the Top 100 lists.
His absence bothered him and created some self-doubt.
Two weeks before the start of his freshman season, while riding back to his dorm with Shane Southwell, a senior for K-State that year, Foster told his teammate that he expected to play 10-12 minutes per game and average around six points.
Southwell looked at him funny.
"Bro, you've got an opportunity to at least average—at the lowest—13 or 14 points," Southwell told the freshman.
K-State's upperclassmen had been impressed by his skill and embraced him because of his work ethic.
Foster was regularly at the gym in the middle of the night working on his game.
"He had a chip on his shoulder to prove to people that he belonged," former K-State assistant Alvin Brooks III says. "I think it was also maybe scared of not playing. Him being nervous of not being able to play made him work extra hard to prove that he could play at the highest level."
Foster was an instant success. He led the Wildcats in scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game, and twice was named the USBWA Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Week. He was the only freshman that season to win the award twice in a class that included Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle.
During his freshman campaign, he told me: "You have to let this humble you. You can't get overexcited about it, let it go to your head."
But after the season, Foster could not help it.
"I really just started feeling myself after that summer," he says. "I got invited to the Nike point guard camp, the LeBron camp. A lot of scouts and agents wanted to talk to me and my family.
"I just really wasn't even worried about the season. I thought I'd already made it when really I had a lot more work to put in. I just needed to stay hungry and humble, and I wasn't. And that's when it all started to go wrong."
It was apparent during his sophomore season that he was not the same guy. He'd battled weight issues in high school—part of the reason he wasn't ranked—and those returned.
K-State's coaches no longer heard from managers that Foster was spending endless hours in the gym.
K-State, which started the season receiving votes in the Top 25 and was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12, went 7-6 in the nonconference. The coaching staff was meeting with Foster about once every other week trying to get through to him, even suspending him for a three-game stretch, but nothing seemed to work.
"I think about it all the time how selfish I was only thinking about myself," Foster says. "We actually had a pretty good team that could have been top three in the Big 12, but my selfish mentality just kind of rubbed off on the whole team. That's where it kind of went wrong. We all started separating and formed cliques on the team."
K-State finished eighth in the Big 12 and then lost its opening-round game of the Big 12 tournament to ninth-place TCU. Foster went scoreless in 19 minutes.
Two weeks later, he was dismissed.
Before Foster put on some weight going into the April evaluation period of his junior season in high school, he'd had interest from a long list of high-major programs. After the weight gain, only three of those schools stayed loyal: K-State, Marquette and Creighton.
When Foster got the boot from K-State, Creighton coach Greg McDermott was there again.
Foster said he knew that's where he wanted to end up before he even went on his visit, but McDermott wanted to make sure he was worthy of a second chance. He had seen Foster at the LeBron James Skills Academy the summer before and realized he'd allowed success to change him.
"I remember calling [assistant] Coach [Steve] Lutz and saying, 'I'm worried about Marcus. He thinks that he's arrived,'" McDermott says. "The way he was carrying himself, it wasn't the same guy I knew in high school. There was a coolness about him that wasn't there, and it looked like he'd lost his hunger to improve."
McDermott called Weber to get the full story when Foster was released, but it was a conversation with Foster's mother that convinced him to take a chance.
"I want my son back," she told McDermott. "Can you help him?"
"So then it was like, I liked this kid in high school. I wanted to meet with him to see if he was willing to change," McDermott says. "It certainly helped that his family was on board with the plan we had in place for him."
Foster got right during his redshirt season, finding the work ethic that had brought him success as a freshman and shedding pounds in the process. When he arrived at Creighton, he had 12 percent body fat; it has been between 7 and 8 percent this season.
That was a necessity to fit in McDermott's uptempo system and allow Foster to fit the role the coach envisioned.
At Kansas State, Foster did a lot of his work in the mid-range, especially his sophomore season when he lost his burst. This season, Foster is getting to the bucket more than he ever has.
|Getting to the rim (on shots in half-court offense)|
|% of shots at basket||Points per possession|
"This is the best Marcus Foster I've ever been," Foster says.
Foster's shooting numbers, on the surface, are not ideal. He's made only 33.9 percent of his threes. But a deeper dive into those numbers reveals he's elite as a spot-up shooter and his numbers have suffered since the injury to Maurice Watson, who tore his ACL on Jan. 16 at Xavier and has since been suspended from the program and charged with first-degree sexual assault, per the Omaha World-Herald.
Foster was making 35.3 of his threes before Watson's injury and is shooting 30.4 percent from deep since.
"Obviously some of the shots within our offense are different now than they were with Maurice," McDermott says. "There was a period of adjustment, not just for Marcus, but for everybody on our team. I think he's done a good job as of late of figuring out where those opportunities are coming from."
It would appear so.
Foster broke out last Sunday with a career-high 35 points against Georgetown. He also had five assists and has taken on more of a facilitator role with Watson out. He's had three or more assists in six of nine games without Watson; before the injury, he reached that mark (and never surpassed it) only three times.
The numbers say that Foster is back and an even better version than his freshman self, but the ultimate test might be how he handles his junior year success this offseason. There's never been a subject of a story that surprised me more than Foster, who truly came off as humble as a freshman, but outside influences obviously changed him.
No one knows for certain that he'll come back for his senior season just as motivated and in shape, but it sounds as if he now has the perspective he once lacked.
For one, he holds no animosity toward K-State.
"I have so much love for Coach Weber and all his staff, because they gave me a chance when no one else would," Foster said. "They invested a lot of time and effort into me, so I don't have any grudges. Everything that happened had to happen, and I learned from it."
Foster also realizes that, at some point, outside influences cannot be all that drives you.
"When you get older, you have to find more ways to be motivated," he says. "My freshman year I wanted to prove to everybody that I was good and people should not have overlooked me. Now it's different. I've already been on the scene. People are going to talk about me because of what I did. It's not all about proving people wrong, but also finding ways to get myself going."
That has been easy at Creighton.
Weeks after his sophomore season at K-State ended and he contemplated what was next—a transfer or turning pro—Foster remembers watching an NCAA tournament game decided by a buzzer-beater.
"I want to be a part of that," Foster told himself.
In a few weeks, he'll get his chance and it will be an important step in this rehabilitation story.
As we finish our interview, I tell Foster, "Glad to see you back on track."
"Thank you," Foster says. "It's good to be back."
C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.