The Spartans point guard is proving why many people consider him to be the pound-for-pound king of college basketball.
Despite Tom Izzo’s Hall of Fame resume, most of the talk heading into Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup between Michigan State and Duke centered on the Blue Devils, and more specifically, the remarkable play of the electrifying Zion Williamson.
College basketball and the NCAA owes a huge debt of gratitude to Williamson, along with the few million dollars that’s he’s been worth this season. Because he single-handedly saved the sport this year from having to deal with the realities of an FBI probe, and other scandals involving cheating, bribery and sexual assault.
Fans could care less about Bol Bol being a walking NCAA violation at Oregon this year, they just wanted to tune in to watch Zion.
But, as things tend to happen at this time of year, March presents its own script. And the drama that played out in Washington D.C. at the East Regional Final had Zion playing a supporting role.
Because the undeniable leading man, and most dynamic player on the court at the Verizon Center was the Spartans’ 6-foot-1 junior point guard, Cassius Winston.
Winston’s 20-point, 10-assist, four-steal performance, with only one turnover, is already etched into Michigan State lore as the Spartans head back to the Final Four for the first time in four years.
The Detroit native and Big 10 Player of the Year might have been overlooked heading into the Duke game, but he served up a reminder as to why some people consider him to be, pound-for-pound, the best college basketball player in America.
Back in Detroit, his former middle school teammates and coaches still marvel at the time, when as a chubby seventh grader limping up and down the court, he once scored 29 points while playing on a broken foot.
They recall his freshman year in high school when he made the varsity squad at the University of Detroit Jesuit, when his coach told him that he wouldn’t start. And when a key player went down with an injury in their opening game, Winston came into the game and finished with 16 points and five assists. He proceeded to start every game afterwards over the next four years.
And the same way he was handing out that work back then – banging step-back jumpers, attacking the basket to finish at the rim with both hands from seemingly impossible angles, pushing the pace and always making the correct pass while playing with a rare unselfishness – is the same way he dissected Duke and sent their vaunted freshman quartet of Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones to an early exit toward the NBA Draft.
“Cassius always was a pass-first kid,” his high school coach Pat Donnelly recently said. “When I say unselfish, it got to the point where he was too unselfish. And I think he started out his college career the same way. There were plenty games — and I’ve heard Coach Izzo make reference to this — there were plenty games in high school where he would start the game and he would go the first quarter without taking a shot because he thought it was important to get everyone else involved.”
As a prep player, Winston led U-D Jesuit to four straight Catholic League titles. The team went to the Class A semifinals three times and won the Class A State Championship his senior year, when he averaged 21.9 points and 7.5 assists for a 28-0 team, winning Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award in the process.
Some doubted that his game would translate at the college level, because Winston does not wow you with incredible speed or athleticism. But those that doubted him failed to comprehend the powerful arsenal that was inherent in his unorthodox game.
Among people who know basketball, they’ll tell you that he has “an old man’s game”, in the same vein as a player like former Spartan Draymond Green.
This season, Winston averaged 18.8 points and 7.6 assists per game en route to leading the Spartans to the Big Ten title, Big Ten Tournament title, 32 wins and now the Final Four.
“What’s funny is that people bet against him in high school, saying oh, he wasn’t big enough, he wasn’t fast enough, wasn’t strong enough to be that kind of a player in the Big Ten and to play at Michigan State,” Donnelly said. “Somebody asked me the other day, did you know he was going to be this good of a player, and I said yes. Did I know he was going to be Big Ten Player of the Year? No, I can’t say that I ever even thought about that. But I know that his aspirations were to have an opportunity to play in the NBA. And he’s going to work his tail off to try and get that opportunity, until somebody tells him he can’t.”
Against Duke, Winston was in perpetual motion on Sunday night. Pushing the rock at a frenetic pace that had Magic Johnson smiling from ear to ear, he had the Blue Devils on their heels all night. And he did all of the little things as well, like setting the screen on the game-winning 3-pointer from forward Kenny Goins with 34.4 seconds left.
Winston played all 40 minutes, and Michigan State needed him for each and every one. He was purely magical during the Spartans 13-0 run to close the first half and give MSU a 34-30 lead. The leadership, creativity, passing, spacing, scoring, all of it was on display to the delight of those who understood what they were witnessing.
In their Sweet Sixteen win over LSU, Winston became the single-season leader in assists in the Big Ten, passing former Spartan Mateen Cleaves.
Izzo has often likened his passing ability to Magic Johnson’s.
Cleaves and Magic left East Lansing with a national championship. And from the looks of how Winston’s been leaving his mark on the game this year, he seems ready to snag one of his own.
“It’s been a magical season and we just felt like ‘Why stop now? Why walk away now?’ We made it this far, we might as well keep pushing,” Winston said after the game.
The Big Ten couldn’t stop him, neither could Duke.
Now Texas Tech and their vicious defense gets their turn against Michigan State, and the best floor general in America, in the Final Four. Don’t be surprised if Winston wears them out as well.