Spartans strive to build 'championship mentality' in Vegas tournament

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Cassius Winston

There’s value to winning a championship, even if it comes early during the season at a holiday tournament.

At least, that’s the approach Michigan State has always taken. It’s how they entered last season’s PK80 Invitational in Portland, making the fact the Spartans walked away with the title after rolling over DePaul, Connecticut and North Carolina that much sweeter.

And it’s exactly the thought process No. 11 Michigan State (3-1) will have as it heads west for the Las Vegas Invitational. The Spartans take on No. 17 UCLA at 10 p.m. Thursday and will face either No. 7 North Carolina or Texas on Friday.

“We’ve got a lot of guys on the team that have won before, but we’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “So, it’s just building that championship mentality, learning what it feels like to win a championship. That’s the mindset we’re trying to get this week.”

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Winston had that mindset last season when he was named the Most Valuable Player of the PK80.

He scored 10 and handed out eight assists in the victory over DePaul with an injured Miles Bridges on the bench then exploded for 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting before scoring seven and handing out seven assists in a blowout victory over North Carolina.

“There were just some moments like, ‘Wow,’” Winston said of the way he played in those three games last season. “It was, ‘I can actually do this. I can actually play at this level.’ You get those moments your career like, ‘OK.’ And that kind of helped my whole season right there.”

Who might have that sort of performance this week remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt the No. 1 goal remains to win a championship.

Secondary to that is Izzo’s continued quest to figure out who exactly will be in the rotation moving forward. 

Much of the uncertainty surrounds the freshmen class. 

Wing Aaron Henry and guard Foster Loyer seem like sure bets to see regular time while it’s tougher to gauge for wing Gabe Brown and forwards Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier.

Each will likely get a chance this week to prove they belong on the floor against stiffer competition than the Spartans saw against the likes of Tennessee Tech, Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Gulf Coast.

“It is that juggling factor,” Izzo said. “(Winning) is a very high priority. You’ve got to learn how to win championships if you’re gonna be a champion and that’s kind of what I’m looking at. How can we do a better job.

“Right now, there are times I want to play Marcus and times I think, because of his body and the weight, it’s harder to play him. Do I put Kithier in, put Foster in, put (Matt) McQuaid at the point some? Those are things the next two days we’ll take a look at.”

However the rotation works out, Michigan State will get a much tougher test right out of the gate with UCLA. 

Moses Brown

The Bruins will have the size advantage, especially with 7-foot-1 center Moses Brown, who is averaging 17.3 points and 12 rebounds a game.

But UCLA (4-0) is also big in the backcourt, featuring 6-8 guard Kris Wilkes, who is scoring 17.5 points a game

“My biggest concern is the size and a little bit of foul trouble,” Izzo said. “Size is an issue, but they’ve got to cover us, too. They’ve got good guards but young. Wilkes is a kid we recruited a little bit, he’s one of their most talented players. The Brown kid inside is good, he can do some things. But he’s playing a lot minutes for them, so we have to wear him down.”

Getting something from the freshmen bigs — Bingham and Kithier — would help in that area, but the focus for all of the young players will be getting used to the tournament setting.

“Once we get in March Madness and the Big Ten tournament, that’s all we’ve got is back-to-back games if you want to keep going farther,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins said. 

“This really shows who’s ready for that and who has been through it. You’ll see a difference between the upperclassmen and the freshman and it’s not always a bad thing because they’ve got time to learn

“You can say as much as you want but you never know until you experience it.

“We’re talking to them about trying to bring energy, even if you’ve got to fake it. Fake energy is better than no energy. We’re just gonna kind of keep trying to pull them along with us and hope they respond to it.”

No. 11 Michigan State vs. No. 17 UCLA

Tip-off: 10 p.m. Thursday, Orleans Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas

TV/radio: FS1/WJR

Records: Michigan State 3-1; UCLA 4-0

Outlook: This is the first meeting between the teams since the 2011 NCAA Tournament when the Bruins edged the Spartans, 78-76, in the first round. … MSU could play North Carolina in the second game of the Vegas Invitational, which would be the second straight season the Spartans and Tar Heels would meet. Last season, MSU beat UNC, 63-45, in the title game of the PK80 Invitational. … Shareef O’Neal, son of Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, is a freshman for the Bruins. However, he is not playing this season because of a heart condition.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau