Iowa City, Iowa – When teams are getting ready to take on Michigan State, the focus of the game plan is usually obvious.
From the athleticism of Miles Bridges to the low-post scoring of Nick Ward to the matchup nightmare that is Jaren Jackson Jr., the Spartans offer plenty for opposing teams to pay attention to in their preparation. That goes for Iowa, as well, which was set to host No. 4 Michigan State on Tuesday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Their front line is really difficult,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “When you think about Bridges and Jackson, those two guys in particular, and they get the bulk of the talk, and Nick Ward is really good. I mean, he is a handful. For most teams, he'd be the complete focal point of what your defense is trying to stop, and I think Tom (Izzo) does a really good job of using all three of them because their skill sets complement one another really well.”
But the one player that might not be the highest on the scouting report might be the most important to the Spartans. That’s sophomore guard Cassius Winston, who happens to be leading the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at 53.1 percent and is the only player in the nation averaging at least 12 points and six assists a game while shooting better than 50-percent from 3-point range.
On Monday, the UD-Jesuit grad was named one of 10 candidates for the Bob Cousy Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s given each season to the top point guard in men's college basketball.
Winston has started all 25 games this season and is fourth on the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game and leads the team with seven assists a game. He leads the Big Ten and ranks No. 9 in the country in assists and his 3-point percentage ranks second in the nation.
It’s something Izzo knew before the season started would be vital to Michigan State’s success.
“There's no question that for us to be great, Cassius Winston has to be the player we all know he can become,” Izzo said in October. “Without a doubt, his play will be a major key to our season.”
It’s been key all season and was obvious early. He was named MVP at the PK80 Invitational in November and scored a career-high 28 points in a win over UConn. He averaged 15 points, 6.7 assist and five rebounds as the Spartans won the Victory Bracket.
Since then, Winston has been held to less than double-digit scoring just three times and has had double-digit assists three times, including a career-high 13 against Savannah State.
It all had McCaffery’s attention heading into Tuesday’s matchup.
“I think Winston is playing extremely well,” McCaffery said. “He's always been a really good player.”
He’s been good on the court, to be sure, but Winston has slowly become one of the Spartans’ top leaders. He’s been a clear voice in the locker room as controversy has been surrounding Michigan State’s athletic department and, more and more, he’s keeping things together on the court.
It’s what got the Spartans through close games the last couple weeks, including at Indiana on Saturday.
“Indiana played really well, and again, that says a lot about Michigan State,” McCaffery said. “They went in there – and Indiana played really well. Maybe they didn't play as well if you look at the numbers, but they played well because they fought really hard, and Michigan State still was tough enough to win.”