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Champaign, Ill. — Tom Izzo has been harping on it, and after Michigan State’s blowout victory over Indiana on Friday, he’s hoping it’s sinking in for his players.

That, of course, is the importance of defense. In this case it’s how that defense relates to the Spartans getting out on the fast break, something they hadn’t done well in the three previous games that resulted in a pair of losses.

“I keep saying it, but I guess it’s going on deaf ears,” Izzo said after the win over the Hoosiers. “If you guard somebody, you guard somebody and they miss shots, you rebound and run it better than you do out of a made shot and I think that was the difference in our running game.”

The numbers weren’t overly impressive for Michigan State against Indiana — it scored just eight points on the break — but it was the fact the Spartans were looking to push the pace that was different than the previous three games.

It was all created by the defense and led to much more energy from the Spartans.

“We ran a couple times after made baskets, but we got the ball going, we got rebounds, we got movement,” Izzo said. “There was energy. We screwed up some defensive assignments … that’s why I’m not really as pleased as I should be. But when you play with energy you make up for it, so if somebody screws up, somebody else makes up for it. That’s kind of what I was most excited about.”

The catalyst for No. 6 Michigan State (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) is sophomore point guard Cassius Winston.

He’d been one of the Spartans’ best players through the first half of the season, but during the team’s three-game lull, Winston had his share of problems. It came to a head in the loss to Michigan when he had only two assists and four turnovers and struggled to defend, especially on ball screens.

That changed in the win over Indiana as Winston had eight assists and just one turnover, giving the Spartans plenty of confidence heading into Monday night’s game at Illinois.

2017-18 MICHIGAN STATE BASKETBALL SCHEDULE

“Well, that was a key,” Izzo said. “But the bigger key for me was he was a lot more solid defensively. We still had some problems with our bigs at times but a lot more solid defensively, which then gave him the opportunity to get the ball and do his magic because when he’s in the open court, that’s when he’s a lot better at making decisions. That’s how you get eight assists. If we defend, we push it, then that’s when Cassius Winston’s at his best.

“So, I think that as he realizes the better he plays defensively, the more shots they miss; the more shots they miss, the more rebounds we have a chance to get and then we get our running game going.

“I think that makes Cassius a better player.”

Winston leads the Big Ten averaging seven assists a game, a number that ranks 10th in the nation. He’s had at least seven assists in 12 games this season, including three games in double-digits. He had 11 assists in the loss to Duke before getting 12 against Houston Baptist and a career-high 13 against Savannah State.

Winston, a Detroit native, is also shooting 52.3 percent from 3-point range, and he’s the only player in the country averaging at least 12 points and six assists a game while shooting better than 50 percent from 3-point range.

“He has a tempo that he pushed,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said, “and I thought just running their stuff, getting the ball to their shooters on time off-screens you know he was good. He’s a good player.”

And he’s starting to understand what his coach is saying, bringing the effort on the defensive end to help create everything else.

“Definitely, and just our energy, our energy coming into this game,” Winston said. “That’s what’s going to take us over that hump. We played with a lot of intensity, a lot of moments tonight, and they made everything just better.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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