East Lansing — Oakland coach Greg Kampe stood at the podium Friday night at the Breslin Center shaking his head and chuckling to himself.
The longtime coach of the Golden Grizzlies was trying to comprehend what he’d just seen on the court, something that was being reflected on the box score he held in his hand. Michigan State had just scored 47 fast-break points, led by junior guard Cassius Winston, who scored 26, and junior big man Nick Ward, who added 14 before he was saddled with foul trouble.
Kampe struggled to compare it to something, anything.
“They are the fastest team that I've coached against in 40-some years,” Kampe said, who took over at Oakland in 1984. “They're the fastest team I've seen as far as not just fast but getting something done. They get stuff done with their speed. Ward is unbelievable. You can't think he's going to get down the floor like that. We're trying to sprint back, we're screaming and yelling about running, and I've just never seen a team that's that fast but also get things done.
“I give it all to Winston. He is so good with the basketball and gets it to where it belongs. He's just smart, he's innate and has an understanding of the game. I've never seen a Michigan State team like that. I've seen fast teams, but I don't think I've ever seen any team like that. I think they're not just really good, but really, really good.”
The Spartans (10-2, 2-0 Big Ten) have never been a team that’s interested in slowing things down. At any point during a game, coach Tom Izzo can be seen imploring his team to push the pace, even if it comes after a made basket.
But the pace they’ve been playing at this season is higher than at any point in the last 16 years, and it might be more than that. According to KenPom.com, Michigan State is averaging 71.8 possessions a game this season, the most since the site began in 2002. In fact, it’s the only time the Spartans have averaged more than 70 possessions a game.
It’s something Izzo has been focusing on early this season, and while he agrees it was good against Oakland, he believes it can get significantly better.
“I do think we're a good running team. I do think we can get up and down the court if Cassius is pushing,” Izzo said. “I like the way he ran the court, so I'll tell you more after I watch the film. I didn't think we were as good as we were against Iowa or some of those teams, but I do think we can run and you run better when you rebound.”
Senior Matt McQuaid agreed the break was good, but he put the onus on himself and junior Joshua Langford to take it to another level.
“Me and Josh have got to do a better job of running our lanes,” McQuaid said. “At the start of the game I don't think we did a good job for Cassius and for Nick, too. When we run, it opens up a lot more and everyone has to do their job on the break because it makes things a lot easier.”
Even if the wings aren’t running the way the Spartans expect, it helps having the point guard to ignite the break. Winston is not the fastest point guard Izzo has had, but he does see the floor as well any of his predecessors while also being a scoring threat.
If he becomes a solid defender, Izzo believes Winston will be among the best ever at Michigan State.
“Offensively he was ready to shoot, and I think we did a good job of finding him,” Izzo said. “He pushed the ball pretty hard at the beginning and I thought he made a couple of those nice floaters. But the passing, I mean the way our guys move the ball around the perimeter and he had some wide-open 3s, and (Winston’s) as good a shooter as the guys they've got. If you leave him wide open, he's going to make them.
“I thought Cassius did that, I know he can do that. He's got to bear down on the defensive end now and he does that he goes from a very, very good player to an elite player.”
As Michigan State gets a few days off for Christmas before closing nonconference play Saturday against Northern Illinois, Winston will continue working to become that player, and he won’t do it slow and deliberately.
“I set the tone,” Winston said. “(My teammates) keep up with the pace. Everyone wants to score and everyone wants the opportunity, so if I push it, everyone usually follows.”