East Lansing — As Michigan State wrapped up practice Wednesday afternoon, Jaren Jackson Jr. glanced over at Cassius Winston and flashed a mischievous grin.
“We got stuff planned for him,” the Spartans’ freshman said.
For roughly two hours, Michigan State went after each other on the practice court at the Breslin Center in preparation for its opening game in the Big Ten tournament Friday. But as things wrapped up, the plans were being formulated to give Winston a hard time.
Why? Because Wednesday was Winston’s 20th birthday, and what better way for teammates to celebrate a birthday than giving each other a hard time?
“We get downstairs (in the locker room), it’s gonna be fun,” Jackson added.
Coach Tom Izzo has talked over and over again about the chemistry of the Spartans. The closeness is evident and from freshman to senior, there are no divisions.
So, it’s with that bond the Spartans planned to bust Winston’s chops. They do so knowing how important he is to what they hope to accomplish over the next few weeks. Winning championships has been the goal from day one, and with the likes of Jackson and sophomore Miles Bridges, Michigan State has the star power.
With sophomore Nick Ward it has an efficient low-post scorer and rebounder and with sophomore Joshua Langford it has a solid defender who can shoot the ball. Add in depth that leads to a rotation that goes at least 10 deep most games and the Spartans aren’t lacking for much.
But what has really catapulted them to 12 straight victories and a regular-season Big Ten championship has been Winston. He leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 56.5 percent and is ninth in assists per game at 6.9.
“Cassius brings another aspect to the game because he’s an unbelievable point guard,” Langford said. “He’s dangerous and hard for other teams to defend.”
What’s made Winston especially tough to defend this season has been the 3-point shooting. He technically doesn’t qualify to be considered the No. 1 shooter from long range because of an odd requirement that players make at least 2.5 threes a game. Winston is averaging 2.3 a game, so the official stats say the leader is shooting 52.2 percent.
Winston is 70-for-124 this season and was 6-for-6 on Sunday at Wisconsin, another game where he showed his knack for making them when they count down the stretch.
It has been a revelation for a player that shot just 38 percent from 3-point range as a freshman. But an off-season of nonstop work has changed his game.
“I knew this year that there was gonna be space (on the court),” Winston said. “I couldn’t be that weak link that defenses could sag off and things like that. If I’m knocking it down at that clip it creates more space for everybody else. With that, I was raised to have a lot of confidence and now I’ve got a lot of confidence and the skillset to back it up.”
Izzo admitted he didn’t know Winston would become this type of scorer when he recruited him out of UD-Jesuit.
“Shame on me, I guess, but I saw him play a lot — a ton — and he was so good at getting around people and getting to the basket,” Izzo said. “I asked his father one time, ‘Where did that shot come from?’ So, I’m not taking any credit for it.
“He put in his time, last spring, summer and fall and I think made tremendous improvement. Cassis has done it the old-fashioned way, he’s worked it, he’s earned it.”
As much work as Winston put in over the summer, the consistency has been slower to come this season. There were some rough games at earlier points in the Big Ten season, namely an eight-turnover performance at Illinois.
But things slowly started to turn, and after sitting nearly nine minutes in the second half at Iowa, Winston returned and sparked a comeback victory.
“After a couple of those (games) we had a lot of heart-to-hearts and I talked to different people that could help me understand him,” Izzo said.
The result has been a several-week stretch where Winston is clearly rounding into Michigan State’s most reliable weapon. In the last four games, he’s 16-for-20 from 3-point range, has failed to reach double figures in scoring just twice in the last month and has improved his assists-to-turnover ratio.
In doing so, he’s starting to become the complete point guard Izzo has wanted him to become.
“His leadership has been off the charts and I think that has really changed in the last two months,” Izzo said. “He’s done such a better job of that. It’s almost mind boggling but I think he bought in and I think I bought in to him. It’s a two-way street. I’ve got to understand him better and what he’s all about and he’s got to understand me better. I’ve enjoyed the process.”
How far Michigan State goes this week in New York and where the NCAA Tournament leads will depend significantly on Winston. He says he’s as confident as he’s been in his career, something that’s hard to argue after looking at the numbers.
“It helps me out a lot and I step into shots with lot of confidence,” Winston said.
That’s easy so see, in games when opponents have no answers and at practice when he’s giving his teammates grief.
“It irritates them a little bit sometimes, but it is what it is,” Winston said with a big laugh.
There’s no doubt the Spartans will live with it. They’ll need that confidence this week and beyond.
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
Michigan State vs. Maryland/Wisconsin
Tip-off: Noon Friday, Madison Square Garden, New York
Opponent: No. 1 seed MSU has a double bye, and will play the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 8 Maryland and No. 9 Wisconsin.