'Rare air': MSU's Cassius Winston carving out place among program's best-ever

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State guards Cassius Winston, right, and Matt McQuaid helped Tom Izzo win his ninth regular-season Big Ten title.

East Lansing — Magic Johnson jumped to his feet, his mouth open as the Breslin Center crowd erupted.

The greatest point guard in Michigan State history, a Hall of Famer, NBA champion and MVP, a legend of the game who has a statue standing in front of the Spartans’ home arena, was witnessing what those around college basketball — particularly the Big Ten — had been all season.

Cassius Winston was stealing the show and Magic and his “fellas” couldn’t get enough.

First it was the no-look, behind-the-back drop off to Nick Ward for a dunk. Later it was the long, one-handed bounce pass to a streaking Kyle Ahrens for a dunk.

More: ESPN's Joe Lunardi: MSU could climb to a No. 1 seed; UM looks like a No. 3

The place was going nuts and the 1979 national champions were soaking it up.

“It was fun to watch them play today,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the victory that, at the time, ended a two-game skid. “It was fun to watch the fans get into it, it was fun to look over and see some elderly men now, 40 years past their prime, jump up and down like college kids.”

That’s what watching the best will do. That’s what happens when greatness recognizes greatness.

And let there be no debate, Winston has become great, something that seemed clear before the individual accolades began rolling in this week, highlighted by the Big Ten player of the year.

'Anything and everything'

Forget that Winston is exceeding the expectations of a 6-foot, marginally athletic point guard who still managed to be named Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan while leading UD-Jesuit to the state championship in 2016.

A few months later, he was one piece of Michigan State’s star-studded recruiting class that included All-Americans Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford as well as Ward.

He was solid as a freshman, started to emerge last year as a sophomore and now, with Bridges and Jaren Jackson off to the NBA, Langford out for the season and Ward missing five games with a broken hand, Winston has become “The guy.”

Entering this week’s Big Ten tournament, Winston is scoring 19 points a game while handing out 7.6 assists and grabbing 3.1 rebounds a game. He’s shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 41.3 percent from 3-point range. He’s fourth in the Big Ten in scoring, while also leading the league and ranking No. 3 in the country in assists per game.

He’s already earned first-team All-America honors from the Sporting News and is a finalist for several major national awards, including the Naismith and Oscar Robertson trophies and the Wooden Award.

More: With Nick Ward back, Michigan State yearns for second helping of Big Ten glory

“He is the player of the year in the conference and he’s gotta be in the conversation for player of the year in the country right now,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said last month. “He should be in the conversation because, especially with Josh out, what he’s being asked to do with the amount of minutes he’s being asked to play, his efficiency, his productivity, his assists, his taking better care of the basketball. He’s just doing anything and everything a coach could want from him.”

Which begs the question — is he the best point guard Izzo has had?

It’s an impressive list when you start to look at the guys who’ve been Izzo’s extension on the court. Mateen Cleaves. Drew Neitzel. Kalin Lucas. Denzel Valentine. Keith Appling. Travis Trice.

Michigan State guard Cassius Winston, center, was in the audience watching his brother, Khy Winston, play for U-D Jesuit in the second half of a recent playoff game.

Cleaves was a national champion and two-time Big Ten player of the year. Lucas and Valentine were both the top player in the conference, too, and each reached at least one Final Four with Lucas being part of two teams that advanced to that point.

Where Winston rates is a fun debate, but there’s no doubt, he’s in that club. He’ll have the upcoming postseason and likely a senior year to add to his resume but there is little convincing that needs to be done when it comes to his teammates. They understand what Winston means as they build off a second straight Big Ten championship.

“He makes my job a whole lot easier,” senior Kenny Goins said. “He draws enough of a crowd to where I get open shots. He’s gonna knock down open shots if you pass it to him and he’s one of the best players in the pick and roll, pick and pop situations. He always makes the right read and gets the ball where it needs to go.”

Added sophomore Xavier Tillman: “He really makes the game simple playing with him.”

'Leading by consistency'

Putting the ball in the basket and setting up teammates is one aspect of greatness. When it comes to being the best, leadership also matters, especially when it comes to playing point guard.

Izzo demands a lot from his “quarterback” and always believed Winston could be that, predicting he’d be a passer as good as Magic. But there were the “Casual Cassius” moments, when Winston’s laid-back style had Izzo pushing for more.

That slowly began to change this season as the Spartans have turned to Winston.

“There are a million different ways to leadership,” Izzo said. “Leading by consistency is pretty good, too. Cassius is a very consistent player and unlike me, he is a little more level, which is probably good. Maybe we make a good team. I don’t know if I’m Frick and he’s Frack, but whatever we are it does have a balance to it.

“I’ll always push the vocal part because I just believe in it and he is getting better at it. He’s taking that final step and now he’s done some things that, at least three or four (players) in the history since I been here have done and I include Magic in that. We have had some good point guards. …

"We’re talking about a kid who does it on the court, off the court in the classroom and now is starting to take on other qualities. That puts him in rare air.”

Michigan State guard Cassius Winsto reacts in the second half of the win over Michigan earlier this month.

That rare air has followed him wherever he’s gone this season. Only twice has he failed to score double-digit points and he’s handed out 10 or more assists seven times.

“We’ve had a lot of point guards come into this building,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after Winston scored 27 and had eight assists in Michigan State’s win in Ann Arbor last month. “I’ve coached some great ones. That was as good a performance as you’re going to see.”

Added Iowa coach Fran McCaffery: “That kid is a special player. He keeps his dribble, he looks for people, and he kind of picks his spots, when to shoot the ball. His shooting percentage from three is tremendous. He makes big shots in very important situations. He's really consistent at doing that and controlling the game. That's why they're where they are, and you've got to give him credit for that.”

There’s no doubt Michigan State (25-6) wouldn’t be entering the Big Ten tournament as the top seed with an outside shot at landing a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament without Winston. He’s scored 1,266 career points and his 659 assists are already the second-most in program history.

If he’s back for this senior season, Winston will take a run at Cleaves’ 816 career helpers and will get closer to the top 15 in career points.

At that point, the debate might not be as contested.

“The list of great point guards who have come through this program, all those guys had such success here and did great things for this university,” Winston said. “It’s almost like I’m next up in line. It’s just a huge opportunity and it’s amazing to be in this situation.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau