East Lansing — As Cassius Winston’s junior season was about to begin, it was clear he was going to play plenty of minutes for Michigan State, probably more than he had his first two seasons.
With a true freshman — Foster Loyer — as the point guard’s primary backup, the Spartans decided early in the season to use senior shooting guard Matt McQuaid to help give Winston a break. But with McQuaid also starting, those breaks would be short.
That physical demand is one thing, and it’s something Winston spent the offseason preparing for. The mental fatigue — knowing how vital you are to the team and playing with the thought you simply can’t be on the bench — can be just as taxing.
Some of that was likely in play for Winston on Tuesday night in an 82-78 overtime loss at Louisville. With 4:01 left in the game and the Spartans trailing by one, Winston committed his fifth foul, forced from the game because of fouls for just the third time in his career.
“Terrible. Terrible,” Winston said of being on the bench for the final 4:01 and overtime, “knowing the things I do for the team, how I can help. That’s my job for this team — hit those free throws at the end, not turn the ball over at the end. That’s my job for the team.”
It didn’t help on Tuesday that McQuaid didn’t make the trip with the team, staying back in East Lansing because of a deep thigh bruise suffered last Friday against Texas. That put even more pressure on Winston to stay in the game and keep the pressure off Loyer.
Instead, Winston admitted that at least three of his fouls were unnecessary, and the he must adjust.
“About three of them were a ‘What was I thinking’ type of thing,” Winston said. “Now I’ve seen it and now I know. I have to be OK sometimes with giving up two in transition or staying solid, don’t try and reach or anything like that.
“Definitely that fifth one. I wasn’t even thinking. The rebound came off and you just go for the rebound. I’ve been doing that my whole life. … I just gotta be smarter.”
Winston’s coach agreed. But even while Tom Izzo had a tough time understanding a few calls during the game and wasn’t given much of an explanation, he needs Winston to stay on the court.
And the mental fatigue is something Izzo is certain Winston can handle, even as his minutes have gone up slightly overall from last year, but has included playing 30 minutes or more in four of the first seven games.
“Yeah, but Cassius is too smart a player to get like three reaching fouls,” Izzo said. “Nobody has called him the greatest defender, but he’s improved. There’s just no reason to have three reaching fouls like he had. That was uncalled for.
“I’ve never really seen Cassius in foul trouble in my 2½ years with him. But you’re right, though, there is more pressure on him, and rightfully so. But he’s smart enough and good enough to play with that pressure.”
That pressure continues Friday night when No. 9 Michigan State opens Big Ten play with a 6 p.m. tip at Rutgers. And while McQuaid likely will miss his second straight game, odds are Winston will be more conscious of staying on the court.
If that leads to solving Michigan State’s biggest problem — turnovers — then all the better.
Michigan State is averaging 14.6 turnovers a game and is last in the Big Ten in turnover margin. It gave the ball away 17 times against Louisville, a game after turning it over 24 times in a win over Texas.
How much Winston’s presence changes that is hard to say. He had three turnovers against Louisville and had seven against Texas.
“That’s a great question,” Winston said when asked why the turnover have been an issue. “I don’t know. Some days we come in locked in. Some days we speed up and are rushing things, not taking our time and that’s where a lot of the turnovers come from.”
Winston believes Tuesday night’s loss was a lesson for the entire team. They see the multitude of reasons they hurt themselves in a close loss, and Winston not being on the floor late was just one of them.
But Winston says he’s up for the challenge, no matter how much is asked of him.
“The minutes are not that hard,” Winston said. “I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. It can be difficult sometimes, but I’ll be all right. My mentality is OK to play that long, I’ve just got to be smarter and be on the floor.”
No. 9 Michigan State at Rutgers
Tip-off: 6 p.m. Friday, Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, N.J.
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 5-2; Rutgers 5-1
Outlook: The Scarlet Knights are coming off a big win Wednesday over Miami (Fla.) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. … The game will be sold out, the first time Rutgers has sold out a home game in November since 1997. … Michigan State has never lost to Rutgers in seven meetings, including all six since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten.