Toughened by adversity, Michigan State finds 'connection' during unexpected rise

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – Sometimes it can be difficult to look at a team and understand why they’re so good.

Some have a superstar or two. Others have a ton of experience and some just seem to get all the breaks.

Kenny Goins

Others, though, seem to just keep winning with something else, something that’s tougher to put a finger on.

They just seem to have it. Call it a connection.

From an unlikely superstar to a former walk-on banging 3-pointers, Michigan State enters the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament as the team you look at the roster and say, “Eh, they’re OK.” Then you watch them and realize they just might end up cutting down some more nets a little less than two weeks from now.

Not exactly what you’d expect after two NBA lottery picks – Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges – left a team that won 30 games last season. And not the adjusted goal after former high school All-American Joshua Langford played barely half the season, now relegated to assistant coach after surgery on his foot. Pile on the injury saga of Kyle Ahrens and the five-game absence of big man Nick Ward, and everything said Michigan State should be home by now, sitting in an ice bath and talking about next year.

Instead, the Spartans have merely won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and matched the 30 wins from last season by advancing out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons.

“I think this team has been a little more connected because they've been through more adversity,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Anytime you go through adversity it strengthens you.”

And anytime you have Cassius Winston, well, that doesn’t hurt either.

As each injury has popped up, that unlikely star has simply done more with fewer options. The 6-foot point guard with average athleticism has proven this season he is anything but average, earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors while landing first-team All-American honors from the Sporting News and second-team from the NABC and USBWA.

Izzo called Winston a “one-man wrecking crew” in the win over Minnesota on Saturday. After Michigan State took a big lead, Minnesota was surging in the second half before Winston had enough, scoring seven points in a minute to put an end to the nonsense.

“To me it’s nothing special,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins said afterward. “That’s Cassius Winston being Cassius Winston. The fact that it’s normal is kind of scary.”

Yeah, but nothing’s normal about this Michigan State team, one some think can actually beat No. 1 Duke if they meet in the East Region finals on Sunday.

Cassius Winston

Winston walks around the locker room, laboring at times. He already has the gait of an old man, but add in a sore knee and a bum toe, and the junior looks like he’s looking for his walker. On the other side of the locker room is Goins, the “old man” of the team who turned down a scholarship offer from Central Michigan nearly six years ago to walk on at Michigan State. He’s gone from a “glue guy” to an absolutely vital piece, a sudden 3-point marksman who also happens to rebound like he’s far bigger than his 6-foot-8 frame would suggest.

But there’s also Matt McQuaid, the senior guard who was always just a shooter, and a streaky one at that. He’s become the team’s best defender and did his own Winston imitation in the Big Ten tournament title game win over Michigan. He’s not far from sophomore Xavier Tillman, whose taken his opportunity and run with it when Ward broke his hand. He can guard just about anyone, is grabbing rebounds and scoring in the post.

And freshman Aaron Henry, who has gone through all the growing pains most freshmen do but doing so asked to play 30 minutes a game as Langford and Ahrens watch in walking boots.

Every one of them playing a role, one that is absolutely critical to Michigan State winning. Even spot minutes from freshmen Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer and Thomas Kithier have been big, as has the gradual return of Ward.

As Izzo preaches, everyone does their job.

“We’ve had some real good teams, but I think how close we are and just how many people we’ve had willing to sacrifice their needs for the good of the team,” Goins said, contemplating what makes this team different. “It really makes us special just in the fact we’ve got everybody doing their job, everyone pushing for one big goal.”

That goal, of course, is the national championship. It’s the goal every season at Michigan State.

But it hasn’t been talked about as much this season, not like in 2016 when Denzel Valentine all but guaranteed his talented group would get it done, and not like last season when a star-studded group had to navigate off-court issues.

This season, the Spartans have truly just worried about whichever team is up next.

“It’s just what we’ve done all year,” Goins said. “It’s a mentality, going through it enough to know it’s not about yesterday or five years ago or tomorrow or the next game. It’s worrying about today.”

Matt McQuaid

Today means you’re going with what you got. Sure, Langford nailing jumpers and Ahrens running the floor would make Michigan State better when it faces No. 3 LSU on Friday. And playing less than 35-plus minutes a game for the better part of the last couple months sure could have helped Winston, Goins and McQuaid.

But the Spartans will take it. They’ll show up and they’ll do their job.

“I feel like this team we rely on each other more,” Winston said. “The last couple teams were so talented that you really didn’t have to rely on anybody. You bring yourself and that usually was good enough for the team. This time we’re just paying for each other. Kenny’s playing for X I’m playing for Quaid, Quaid is playing for somebody else. We’re all just relying on each other to carry us through.

“You don’t have any choice but to rely on somebody else. You can’t do it all by yourself. One man can’t carry the whole team, so we all rely on each other and that brings the best out of people.”

It’s brought out the best in Michigan State. If it finds a way to get two more wins, it will be back in the Final Four for the eighth time under Izzo. It’s where the Spartans believe they belong.

If they pull it off when it’s hard to how, well, that’s just fine, too.

“At the end of the day we won and got another day to work,” Goins said last weekend. “So, what more could you ask for?”

East Region


Tip-off: 7:09 Friday, Capital One Arena, Washington

TV/radio: CBS/760

Records: Michigan State 30-6; LSU 28-6

Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Duke or No. 4 Virginia Tech in the Elite Eight.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau