MSU coach Tom Izzo talks about facing LSU in the NCAA Tournament. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
It was in a game back in December 2014 at Detroit Mumford High School when Michigan State coach Tom Izzo watched Cassius Winston, who was in his junior year as the point guard at U-D Jesuit, leading his team to a win over two-time Illinois state champion Chicago Morgan Park.
Izzo went up to U-D Jesuit coach Pat Donnelly and told him Winston was the best high school passer he had seen since Magic Johnson.
Winston had just filled up the stat sheet with 32 points and 11 assists in an 80-69 win, thrilling the crowd with an assortment of passes while showing his ability to get to the basket.
Now Winston leads Michigan State (30-6) against LSU (28-6) in Friday night’s East Region semifinal. A junior for the No. 2 seed Spartans, Winston has developed into everything Izzo could have hoped for, earning the Big Ten Player of the Year award this season, helping MSU to the Big Ten regular-season title, followed by the conference tournament championship.
“He did say that and it’s turning out to be true,” recalled Donnelly of Izzo comparing Winston’s passing ability to Johnson’s when Johnson was at Lansing Everett in the mid-1970s. “He’s had a great career. Did I think he’d be Big Ten Player of the Year? I don’t think I ever thought about it, but I certainly knew he’d have a great career, and the trajectory of his college career is very similar to what it was like in high school, so I’m very happy for him and excited for him, and I think he’s done a phenomenal job.”
Winston led U-D Jesuit to a Final Four appearance as a junior year, then to the Class A state championship his senior year in 2016, when he was named Mr. Basketball.
Donnelly said Winston has worked hard at the game since he was a very young player.
“He had a tremendous work ethic from the time he was little,” said Donnelly, whose assistant coach is Reginald Winston, Cassius’ father. “Reg used to talk about taking him to play against grown men when he was in third in fourth grade. That’s how he learned to overcome some of his deficiencies in athleticism and size, by doing it against bigger, stronger people.
“He had a love for the game and spent a lot of time on it, so it doesn’t shock me that he has continued to improve. His shot has gotten better, he’s gotten stronger, he’s become quicker and he certainly has become a better defender. But he always had an innate ability to pass the ball and he’s always had great vision, so I’m not surprised by that aspect of the game.”
Donnelly is impressed with how Winston got physically stronger to be able to play at a high level in the Big Ten.
“I think he really dedicated himself in the weight room, changed his body so he could become more competitive in the Big Ten, and I think in the last couple of years, this year specifically, I think he just became more aggressive offensively,” said Donnelly. “He’s always been a pass-first guy, but I think what really set him apart this year is that he became more aggressive offensively.
“He still has that great vision where he always has his eyes up and he always sees the floor and is surveying things. But he’s searching for shots a little bit more and I think where you have those weapons, where you can be a great passer or score yourself, that makes you a pretty difficult person to defend.”
Winston is averaging 18.9 points, shooting 47 percent from the field while making 40 percent of his 3-point attempts. He ranked third nationally in assists (7.6) during the regular season.
Donnelly said Winston has also become a better leader.
“I think he became a better leader as he matured,” said Donnelly. “He was a little tentative as a freshman. He was a good player and a good scorer, but I think as he got older he became more confident, he became more of a great leader by example, and I think one of the big things that he developed at Michigan State, and I know it wasn’t easy, was he became more of a vocal leader. That’s something that Coach Izzo was demanding of him and you can see it now.”
Donnelly said he wasn’t surprised when Winston stepped between Izzo and Henry during MSU’s first-round win over Bradley.
“The thing is, both (Winston)and Matt McQuaid, it was easy for them to get in the middle as upperclassmen and say, ‘Coach, we’ve got this,’ because they’ve lived it,” Donnelly said. “I talked to Coach Izzo after that and he said, ‘Hey I went through this with Cassius and now look at him, and Aaron Henry is going to be the same way.’
“He’s (Izzo) going to coach them hard and he’s going to demand of them, and those things that he demands of them are going to help them as players as they mature and as they go along in the program, and Cassius and Matt McQuaid are prime examples of that. They’ve been there before and they know the old saying of it is not how it’s said, but what’s said, so they know what the result is and what the purpose of getting in his face is, so they’re able to calm Aaron down and also able to say, ‘Coach, let us communicate with Aaron so we can keep on track.’
“I’m proud of him for standing up like that. I think that’s a great amount of trust in both directions.”
MSU's Kenny Goins, Xavier Tillman, Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid talk about facing LSU in the NCAA Tournament. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Donnelly plans to attend the game Friday night at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Donnelly’s son, Colin Donnelly, is MSU’s head men’s basketball manager and will graduate in May with a degree in broadcast journalism.
After the season, Winston will have a decision to make: Return to MSU for his senior season or enter the NBA draft.
Said Donnelly, “I’ve already gotten calls from NBA teams: ‘What’s he like?’ It’s not just about his basketball ability. They want to know about every little aspect of that person.
“I certainly hope he has the opportunity. That’s a dream of his, to play in the NBA, and it has been for a long time, and there’s nobody rooting harder for him than me.”