Cassius Winston is the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Let’s take a minute while Michigan State fans say, “No kidding,” and Michigan fans spit out their coffee and bring up the point Wolverines point guard Zavier Simpson has had Winston’s number in previous matchups.
And while we have yet to reach the halfway point of the conference season, let’s also acknowledge Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis and Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. There’s probably a few more names that can be thrown in that mix, but those players all have been exceptional at times this season.
But for anyone who’s watched Michigan State closely over the past three seasons — or the Big Ten, for that matter — it’s hard to argue with what the Spartans’ junior point guard is doing this season.
The numbers are impressive enough. Entering Sunday, Winston is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.2 points a game, leads the conference in assists at 7.3 per game — a number that is tied for fifth nationally — and is third in 3-point shooting at 45.2 percent. He’s scored in double figures in 17 of Michigan State’s 18 games has had 10 or more assists five times and surpassed 1,000 points in his career during a victory Thursday over Nebraska.
However, it’s more than simply stuffing the stat sheet. Instead, it’s how that player affects his teammates, and there’s little doubt Michigan State is better because of how Winston is playing.
“I know he’s gonna put me in the best position to score and put the team in the best position to win,” freshman Aaron Henry said. “He’s my Big Ten Player of the Year right now, I would say so. He's all of that right now, and I’m going to keep telling him that.
“He’s a winning player.”
There’s been so much winning this season — 11 straight heading into Monday night’s matchup with No. 19 Maryland — that it has ignited debate about whether the Spartans are better this season without Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., two lottery picks in last summer’s NBA Draft. Last year’s team won 30 games, but lost to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament and was ousted in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Syracuse.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has tried his best to suppress that belief. But if there is one reason, it’s Winston. Sure, Nick Ward is playing a huge role, but it’s Winston that has been the catalyst.
The win over Nebraska was the perfect case study. Coming off his worst game, arguably, as a Spartan in a win at Penn State, Izzo challenged his point guard to respond. Winston then went out and scored a career-high 29 points on 9-for-15 shooting with six assists.
“He was unbelievable from the start,” Izzo said.
“Winston got away from us,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.
What makes it so impressive is that, on the surface, it’s hard to see why Winston has been so effective, so hard to stop. He’s not the fastest player in the conference, nor the strongest or quickest. Yet, few teams seem to have the ability to slow him.
Somehow, Winston is routinely getting past defenders in the half court or pushing the ball on the break, often setting up teammates in the perfect spot or finishing on his own.
Most times he looks like a puppet master just pulling strings, willing the game to play out as he sees fit.
“I felt in control of the game, playing at my pace,” Winston said of the Nebraska game. “I wanted to get back on track and get back to the level I was playing at. I want to play with the highest standard and to the best of my ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”
It’s worth pointing out Winston has hardly skipped a beat playing the last couple of games with Henry and fellow freshman Gabe Brown seeing heavy minutes.
Winston is out of his comfort zone to some extent with Joshua Langford missing the last five games with an ankle injury and Kyle Ahrens sitting the last two with a back problem. It’s forced Winston to adjust and bring along his young teammates.
“It’s just learning what kind of players they are in extended minutes, learning what type of players they are when they’re tired,” Winston said. “You’ve got to learn how to play with them. Right now, we’re just trying to teach them to stick to the basics. I know the basics: ‘He’s going to be on the right wing; he’s going to be on the left wing.’ As we grow that’s when all those other things come into play.”
It’s put plenty of pressure on a guy who is playing 31.4 minutes a game and played all but 1:28 against Nebraska.
Winston has been great this season, and that’s what the Spartans need. In fact, they need him to be everything, amplified by the absence of Langford and Ahrens.
“Let’s face it, I’m trying to have Cassius do everything — coach the team, drive the airplane, hell of a deal,” Izzo said after a win at Ohio State two weeks ago.
It’s a deal the rest of the Big Ten is realizing, even if they haven’t figured out how to stop him.
No. 19 Maryland at No. 6 Michigan State
Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Monday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
Records: Maryland 16-3, 7-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 16-2, 7-0
Outlook: Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr. has scored 20 or more points in four straight games. … Maryland is looking to match its best start in Big Ten history with a victory over Michigan State. The Terrapins started 8-1 during the 2016-17 season. … Michigan State has won five of the last six in the series, the last home loss coming in 2014.