Minneapolis – Two names keep coming up this week when folks are talking to Cassius Winston.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Mateen Cleaves.
One has a statue in front of the Breslin Center. The other made such an impact on Tom Izzo that the coach named his son after him.
That’s what Winston is being compared to these days – not just good players, but icons, players who’ve helped shape the culture that’s been created at Michigan State, from Jud Heathcote to Tom Izzo, over the past four decades.
As Michigan State prepares to face Texas Tech at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday in one of two national semifinals, Winston is putting himself in the position to join an exclusive club, one that has just two members.
Not only were Johnson and Cleaves the point guards of the only two national champions in program history, they were the heart and soul of their teams. Each needed their teammates to cut down the nets on the final day of the college basketball season. Gregory Kelser was as good a running mate as most superstars get on the 1979 team and is the fourth-leading scorer in Michigan State history while the Flintstones – which included Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell – carried the 2000 team to Izzo’s first championship.
But there was no doubt, neither championship trophy exists without Johnson or Cleaves.
If Michigan State beats Texas Tech on Saturday and gets a win on Monday night to earn its third national title, it will be because of Winston.
“He’s kind of covered the entire gamut,” Izzo said this week. “He scores points. He's playing better defense. He's making other players score points, and he almost gets to coach the team a little bit.
“I think that's what Mateen did for me. I know that's what Magic did for Jud. So he's trekking down the right road. … Cassius has done enough to set himself in that same footprint with those guys, just the way he's led, the way he's handled a lot of situations in the last couple of years and the way our players respect him.”
Like Michigan State’s success this season, Winston’s respect has been earned. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year and earned first-team All-American honors from the Associated Press and the Sporting News. He’s averaging 19 points and 7.6 assists a game, which ranks third in the nation. In Michigan State’s win over Duke in the East Region finals, Winston had 20 points and 10 assists. The only players to do that in an NCAA game in MSU history are Johnson and Draymond Green.
He’s also one of just four Spartans to be named the conference’s player of the year and an All-American in the same year, joining Cleaves, Green, Shawn Respert and Denzel Valentine.
And in the middle of the season, when Joshua Langford was lost to a foot injury, Winston was named a team captain.
But to move into the elite club populated by only Johnson and Cleaves, it will take two more wins.
“There's room at the table for Cassius, and I'll even pull the chair out for him personally," Cleaves told the Associated Press. “I'm excited for him, and I think he deserves it. Having won it, I know how it feels and it gets even better as you get older. No matter what, no one can take that away from you, and you're a staple in college basketball for the rest of your life.”
The championship is what matters most. Winston has made that clear all week. If people want to debate where he stands, so be it.
But he’ll think about it after the season … maybe. As he walks past the Magic statue, it might cross his mind. But not right now.
“It’s kind of like too unreal,” Winston said. “It’s one of those things that I’ll look back on when I’m done being a Spartan and brag a little bit and boost my name up some and just focus on playing for this team and winning games and look back on all that stuff when it’s over.”
It’s that attitude that’s as important as anything Winston has done on the court. It’s why there’s no division in the locker room and his teammates are just as eager to talk about Winston’s greatness as he is.
On Friday, Winston sat on stage with Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward. Izzo was asked to compare Winston to Johnson and Cleaves. As Izzo talked about Winston’s leadership and how his teammates think of him, McQuaid and Ward nodded.
“I think whenever you're compared to people in a leadership role that have done it at the ultimate level, and that's winning a championship, I think that alone is the greatest attribute,” Izzo said. “You know, they're all different. One's real strong, one's real tall, and they're all real smart. So they're different kind of players, but the bottom line to all three of them and what's made us so successful this year, winning is important, and nobody cares who gets the credit.
“For superstars to handle themselves that way, I'm blessed that I get to coach him. I'm blessed that I got to coach Mateen, and I'm blessed that I have Magic giving my pregame talk. So I got it all the way around the board. It's a hell of a deal.”
Johnson and Cleaves were both in Washington last weekend when the Spartans beat top-seeded Duke. Johnson, the Hall of Famer and NBA champion, spoke to the team before it faced the Blue Devils.
“This is your time,” he repeated to the Spartans.
It is, indeed, Michigan State’s time. And it’s making the most of it thanks to a 6-foot-1 guard from Detroit, one that just might be ready to take his place among the greats.
Magic. Mateen. Cassius.
For that to means something, Winston knows what must come next.
“That would mean a lot,” he said this week. “Those are the greats, definitely. Gotta be top two. So just to be up there with those guys, to get a national championship for this program, that's something you can't replace.”
Michigan State's Cassius Winston, Kenny Goins, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and Matt McQuaid talk about playing Texas Tech in the Final Four. The Detroit News
At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
►Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9), 6:09 p.m. (CBS)
►Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
►Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)