Winston vs. Simpson is compelling subplot in Michigan State vs. Michigan showdown

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Cassius Winston

East Lansing — When Earvin “Magic” Johnson was back in East Lansing a couple of weeks ago joining his Michigan State teammates that won the national championship 40 years earlier, he joked about the laughter and lies they shared over the course of a couple days.

Four decades after the biggest moment in their lives to that point for every player that suited up for the Spartans in 1979, the memories had become fuzzier. But with that lack of clarity came the fun of remembering things perhaps not exactly as they happened.

In other words, when you win, time makes the victory that much grander. When you lose, those defeats seem much worse as time ticks by.

It’s probably the best way to sum up the one-on-one battle between Michigan State’s Cassius Winston and Michigan’s Zavier Simpson. The Wolverines beat the Spartans in two meetings last season — in January in East Lansing and then in the Big Ten tournament semifinals in New York in March — and there’s no debate — Simpson got the best of Winston.

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The Wolverines’ point guard had just finally secured the starting spot for John Beilein’s team two games prior to that first matchup with the Spartans and he responded with 16 points — a career-best to that point — while handing out five assists and grabbing two steals.

Along the way he helped make life miserable for Winston, who was 3-for-7 shooting with four turnovers in 31 minutes.

Nearly two months later, with a trip to the Big Ten title game on the line, Simpson scored 15 and grabbed seven rebounds as the Wolverines went on to win the conference tournament championship. Winston had a similar line as the first meeting – 11 points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Almost a year later, as both are having outstanding junior seasons, the common feeling is Simpson dominated Winston, getting in his head and leading Michigan to the pair of victories. Like anything, that’s true to an extent.

Simpson soars

Yes, Michigan won, in large part, because of Simpson’s performance. But it’s not as if Michigan State was living and dying with Winston.

“That would mean that we put everything on Cassius last year and it wasn’t all on Cassius,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We had lot of guys that maybe didn’t play as well as they could play, some shots that went in, shots that didn’t go in.

Zavier Simpson

“But I think you assume that title and position whenever you’re a quarterback of anything. If the goalie doesn’t play well, it’s his fault. If the pitcher doesn’t pitch well, it’s his fault.”

As true as that might be, there’s little doubt Michigan State is as close as it can get to putting it all on Winston now as the Spartans get set to head to Ann Arbor on Sunday for a top-10 showdown with the Wolverines without Joshua Langford and likely Nick Ward. And, of course, that puts the next version of the point-guard battle in the spotlight.

With both teams tied atop the Big Ten standings the pressure is on — for Winston to rebound and for Simpson to continue to be what he’s been for Michigan for the better part of the last year.

That is a defensive standout who is as vital to Michigan’s success as Winston is to Michigan State’s. It’s that feeling that Winston is carrying with him entering the game.

“Really in a sense that both of us are such crucial parts to our team,” Winston said of understanding why the matchup is so important.

“At the end of day, it’s gonna be an individual matchup just because our teams go as we go. A lot of their team’s success is because of him, a lot of my team’s success is because of me. So, it turns into an individual matchup in that sense and both our goals is to be the best we can and help our team win. That’s my mindset.”

Both are vital to each team’s success. Winston is dead-on with that analysis. Trying to determine if one is more important than the other is tougher to do. Illinois coach Brad Underwood said that Simpson is as valuable to his team as any player in the country.

Winston has drawn similar praise as he’s piled up statistics that have him in the chase for Big Ten Player of the Year. Right or wrong, each will be judged significantly on what happens Sunday and in the rematch on March 9 in East Lansing.

It certainly has Simpson motivated.

“Definitely, but at the same time we have to just play,” Simpson told the Big Ten Network. “I try not to get too motivated, so I won’t go out there and make not-smart decisions. But then again, definitely, before the game I’m looking for anything to get motivated, so I can just play my hardest.”

Their history goes further than just last season. Winston said he’s been playing against Simpson for years on the AAU circuit and in high school and both were recruited by plenty of the same schools. Neither played big roles as freshmen two seasons ago, but that has all changed now.

Michigan and Michigan State expect to play for the conference title and believe they’re good enough to reach the Final Four. How Simpson and Winston fare will help determine if those goals are reached, beginning on Sunday.

The upper hand

Simpson knows he’s had the upper hand. Winston isn’t shying away from trying to wrestle it away.

“I didn’t give my team the best opportunity to win (last season) and that really hurts,” Winston said. “I want to go out there, play to the best of my ability and to my full potential.

“We’ve played the best teams in the country and it will be a tough environment. It will be a grinding game, but we’ve been working for this all year. There are revenge games that you always want to get back at a team. Now we get that chance this Sunday.”

How Simpson and Winston fare against each other will have a significant impact on which team comes out on top.

“We’re both playing for a championship, both trying to move closer to that,” Winston said. “So, you do everything you can to win games.”

Added Simpson, “I kind of think about (last year). It goes across my mind maybe once or twice before the game, but at the end of the day, once the ball is in the air you have to just play basketball.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau