Bob Wojnowski and Matt Charboneau break down MSU vs. LSU in the NCAA Tournament. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
Washington, D.C. — Don’t be fooled by the old-man walk or the young-man grin. Don’t be distracted by the white headband that looks like a remnant from a phys-ed class.
Cassius Winston is more than he appears, so much more productive than you’d expect from a 6-1 guard who laughs at his own lack of athleticism. Michigan State’s junior star has far exceeded what anyone expected of him, and yet now comes the big reveal. Now, we see if Winston can exceed even loftier possibilities, in the Sweet 16 against an opponent as tough as any he’s faced.
When the Spartans meet LSU Friday night, there’s no ignoring the marquee matchup.
It’s Winston, the Big Ten Player of the year, against Tigers 5-11 guard Tremont Waters, the SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year. It’s savvy versus speed, low-key versus high-octane, as Michigan State’s do-everything guard wades into the deepest Waters yet.
The other matchups also should be fascinating. LSU has tall athletes who run the floor, crash the boards and force turnovers. Michigan State has tall athletes who run the floor, crash the boards and can be turnover-prone.
The coaching matchup is a Hall-of-Famer, Tom Izzo, against an interim, Tony Benford, who took over for LSU’s suspended Will Wade. It’s power versus power, Big Ten versus SEC, with the winner probably getting a shot at Duke.
But at its core, this is the ultimate test of Winston’s calm and stamina, as he faces a super-quick guard who gambles and agitates.
Winston is the superior shooter (40 percent on 3-pointers to Waters’ 32 percent).
Waters is the superior defender, with 95 steals to Winston’s 35. You look at Winston’s pleasant demeanor, listen to his thoughtful comments and watch his sometimes-accentuated hobble, and you wonder if he can keep up with the accelerated pace. Then you feel silly wondering because he has done everything to bring the Spartans here. LSU’s strength — forcing turnovers — collides with Michigan State’s weakness — committing turnovers — and Winston is the guy who must control it.
“He's been flawless as far as being under pressure,” Izzo said. “I said (when Michigan State lost Josh Langford and Nick Ward to injury), these other guys are going to be a little more nervous, you’re going to have to lead now and talk to them. And I think he’s done a phenomenal job. The kid has gone beyond where I thought he could go so far, giving me everything he can give. But I still think he has another level we're going to keep pushing to.”
Izzo almost feels guilty asking for it. It took a while for the Izzo-Winston relationship to develop in the early years, as Winston gradually committed to defense and ball security. But here was Izzo Thursday, no longer using his “Casual Cassius” label, instead calling him a “silent assassin.”
Remember, when the season began, Michigan’s Zavier Simpson had the one-on-one edge. Winston didn’t say much, then went out and led the Spartans to three straight victories over their rival. When Minnesota sliced a 23-point deficit to nine last weekend, Michigan State was wobbling, while committing 22 turnovers. And then Winston stepped back in, rattled off seven straight points, and it was over.
Again, don’t be fooled by Winston’s reticence.
“I love big games, I love competing,” he said. “(Waters) does a good job using his quickness, changing speeds to get to his spot. He does a great job controlling that team, pushing tempo. And I guess in my case, I play within myself. I know what I'm good at, I know my spots. And I don't try to play outside of my strengths.”
No self-promotion there, which fits Winston’s famously selfless style. Over in the LSU locker room, Waters also was declining to bite. His coach, Benford, had compared Winston to NBA star Kemba Walker, and Waters brushed it off.
“You embrace every matchup, and obviously he’s a great player,” Waters said. “It’s going to be fun playing against him. But I don’t focus on watching other people.”
Waters is LSU’s leading scorer at 15 points per game, talented enough that he explored the NBA after his freshman season. He hit the winning shot with 1.6 seconds left to beat Maryland last weekend and is second in the nation in steals. Izzo called him a “water bug,” fitting because Waters bugs opposing players.
“Waters is a little more disruptive on defense, while Cassius’ ability to shoot from outside with consistency is a little better,” Izzo said. “In the Super Bowl you always look for two good quarterbacks. We’ve got two great quarterbacks here, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it works. But it won’t be Cassius against Waters. It’s still going to be a team.”
Winston makes sure it’s always about the team. He averages 18.9 points but only takes 13 shots per game and is third in the nation in assists. He’s not the vocal floor leader like Mateen Cleaves or Denzel Valentine, but Izzo has learned to appreciate Winston’s sanguine ways.
“Sometimes that frustrates me because you want to see passion in a guy, but he has his own style,” Izzo said. “And yet, on my team, that might be good, because I show emotion the other way. He does it with a pretty even-keeled approach, and yet I sit there in the huddle and say, ‘OK, it’s your time — please?’ And he answers the bell.”
Winston admits it was a tough adjustment, mentally and physically. He didn’t always maintain the best physical conditioning, or focus fully on defense. He said he ditched his favorite snacks – Starbursts and chips – and took better care of himself. After dealing with ankle, knee and toe aches, he said he feels as fresh as he has all season, no star-bursting now.
Some labels stick, and Winston doesn’t mind. He’s often branded unusually unathletic because of his choppy gait and modest quickness. It sounds like an insult — and certainly will be tested by Waters’ quickness — but Winston doesn’t see it that way. Not blessed with uncommon skills, he has developed everything else.
“I’m not really athletic if you’ve seen me, so I can’t get mad about facts,” Winston said with a laugh. “My whole thing is, I have to be more creative, more crafty to make things happen, so I’ve been working on that for a long time. It’s angles, change of speeds. Just do your best to keep them from being athletic.”
He chuckles at the comparison to Walker, who led Connecticut to the 2011 national championship. Winston is modest and serene, seemingly unbothered by the pressure. As always, underestimate him at your own peril.
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 3 LSU
Tip-off: 7:09 Friday, Capital One Arena, Washington
Records: Michigan State 30-6; LSU 28-6
Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Duke or No. 4 Virginia Tech in the Elite Eight.