Early last week, Cassius Winston became a captain.
By the time the week was ending, the Michigan State junior guard likely cemented his status as Big Ten Player of the Year.
The captaincy, as it turns out, was given to Winston from coach Tom Izzo, who felt it was necessary as the Spartans were digesting the news they’d be without center Nick Ward for the foreseeable future after he suffered a hairline fracture in his left shooting hand. That came a couple of weeks after guard Joshua Langford had to have surgery to repair an injured foot, knocking him out for the remainder of the season.
Proving he was the best player in arguably the best conference in the nation has been a process that has been taking place all season. However, it was Winston’s 27 points and eight assists in Michigan State’s 77-70 victory over Michigan on Sunday that had to remove any doubt from those who will cast a vote when the regular season ends in a little less than two weeks.
“He’s our leader and like I said before, he’s the player of the year in all our minds,” senior Kenny Goins said. “We all look to him in the crunch time and he always delivers.”
The numbers back up what Goins and the rest of the Spartans believe. Winston is third in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 19.2 points a game and leads the conference in assists at 7.4 a game. He’s also making 42.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, shooting 83 percent from the free-throw line and is third in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.
He’s doing it all averaging more than 33 minutes a game for the Spartans (23-5, 14-3 Big Ten), who are in first place in the Big Ten by a half-game over Purdue and ranked No. 6 in the country.
On Monday, he was named the Big Ten Player of the Week for the fifth time this season — the first Michigan State player to accomplish the feat.
But it was Sunday’s performance that had everyone talking.
“He was absolutely tremendous,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We’ve had a lot of point guards come into this building, I’ve coached some great ones, too. That was as good of a performance as you’re gonna see.”
The fact Winston did it against the Wolverines was the only thing most were waiting on before essentially handing the award to Winston. He has been outstanding all season, but detractors pointed out his struggles last year in two losses to Michigan.
In those games, it was the Wolverines’ Zavier Simpson who got the best of Winston. However, any talk of Michigan being Winston’s kryptonite ended Sunday afternoon.
“I just felt like this is his time to step forward,” Izzo said Sunday, revealing why he made Winston a captain. “And I told him what responsibilities he had, and tonight I used those exact words: ‘You’ve gotta put us on your shoulders’ without monopolizing the game or the ball. … I’d say that Cassius took a giant step in the right direction. And I’m really proud of what he’s done.”
The Spartans voted Langford and senior Matt McQuaid as team captains before the season. But with McQuaid the only healthy captain left, it made sense to turn to Winston.
The U-D Jesuit grad called it “an honor” to be named a captain, but wasn’t looking at his performance against the Wolverines as any sort of clincher for postseason honors. Instead, Winston was focused on finishing the final three games atop the conference standings.
“I don’t really get into the personal thing,” Winston said. “We’re playing for a championship. That was a really good team in a really tough environment and us winning? That’s really all the satisfaction we need.”
Others will likely get votes, namely Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. But neither have been as consistent as Winston.
Edwards is the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 23.4 points a game — 21 in conference games — but he’s a volume shooter who has seen his share of off nights. He was 3-for-16 in Purdue’s first meeting with Michigan State and 4-for-19 in the second. In last week’s win at Indiana, Edwards was just 4-for-24.
Happ is averaging 17.7 points and 10.2 rebounds a game for the Badgers and has recorded 18 double-doubles this season. However, he’s shooting only 43.6 percent from the free-throw line and missed all six of his free throws in the second half of a loss at home to Michigan State.
It seems the only question for Winston at this point is if he reaches All-American status and becomes a factor in national player of the year discussion.
For now, though, he’ll put his focus where it’s been all season.
“We’re playing toward a championship,” Winston said. “That’s what it’s all about here, winning championships.”
How they rate
Stats this season for Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ:
FG Pct.: 46.8
3-point Pct.: 42.6
FG Pct.: 39.1
3-point Pct.: 34.4
FG Pct.: 54.3
3-point Pct.: 00.0