Wojo: Why Winston and Spartans can win it all next year

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — A couple shots short, a couple possessions short, and ultimately, a couple bodies short.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston was Big Ten player of the year and a first-team All-American, yet he sounds hungry for more.

It’s laudable the Spartans got as far as they did, to the Final Four, considering what they were missing and how much energy they spent trying to compensate. It ended in a sheen of sweat, 61-51, late Saturday against a Texas Tech defense that was impressively oppressive.

There weren’t many tears in the locker room afterward, perhaps because Michigan State had no emotion left to spill. And also because this didn’t feel like the end of a larger story. Tom Izzo just went to his eighth Final Four, and still is hunting his second national title. Cassius Winston just crafted one of the great point-guard seasons in program history – behind Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves – and he’ll be back.

That dually-driven combo, Izzo and Winston, is a tremendous place to start, and the reason the Spartans should be top five in the preseason polls and a Big Ten favorite. Frankly, it might be a repeat of this season, with Michigan State (32-7) and Michigan (30-7) battling for conference supremacy, assuming no unexpected roster attrition.

The Spartans lose only two seniors – Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins – and might lose Nick Ward, who could test the NBA waters again. They return Joshua Langford, who missed most of the season after foot surgery. Role player Kyle Ahrens will be back, out since March 17 with an ankle injury. They bring in three recruits in a top-20 class and will have two rising sophomores – Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown – and a stronger Xavier Tillman.

‘Love being a Spartan’

Afterward, Winston said he might get feedback from the NBA but wasn’t really thinking about it. I’d be stunned if he considered a jump. He sounded like a guy fully committed to staying and finishing the job as a senior.

“I have no clue how that (NBA stuff) works, I just love being a Spartan,” Winston said. “I want to win a championship on each and every level. When I leave my mark on Michigan State, I want to be known as a winner, and you can’t do that without that last piece.”

It’s the last piece Magic Johnson got with the 1979 championship, the last piece Cleaves got with the 2000 championship. It’s an achievable piece for Winston, who has grown as impressively from his freshman year as any player in recent memory. And it’s still the obsession for Izzo, who said, “I’ll keep knocking on the door, and one of these days that door is gonna open.”

Winston kept knocking, even as he got knocked around. He was forced to do so much, too much, because Texas Tech was denying Michigan State’s big guys from operating inside. Winston shot four-for-16 and played 40 minutes, just as he did in the victory over Duke. In five Tournament games, his minute totals varied little – 39, 32, 39, 40, 40.

Cruelly, Texas Tech beat the Spartans at their own game, with a ridiculously stifling defense that was disciplined but not afraid to gamble. It was no fluke, as Texas Tech’s toughness and tenacity did the same thing to Michigan, only worse, 63-44.

By the end, the Spartans looked worn out. And then they sounded inspired. Because truly, if they had one or two more healthy bodies, they might have been able to withstand the withering Texas Tech attack. Near the end, McQuaid and Tillman were limping with cramps, and Winston was being double-teamed constantly.

“This team came out of nowhere in some ways, when you look at what we lost,” Izzo said. “We just didn’t finish the job. We’re not the team we were, not as good defensively, not as good rebounding, not as good a running team. As the bodies went, we just had to do it a different way.”

Winston was the overwhelming strength, and in the process, revealed the primary flaw. The Spartans need a dependable backup point guard, or one more guy capable of creating offense. No team is perfectly constructed and they almost won anyway – trailing 52-51 with three minutes left -- and if Winston returns a little stronger, and Tillman and Henry a little more well-rounded, look out.

“Cassius Winston did the best job of anybody after the game,” Izzo said. “He was a man, he was a leader, he rallied everybody in that room. I was impressed. He talked to them about, we gotta learn from what we didn’t do right. He handled it like a Magic, like a Mateen, and I think he’s still got a lot of things he’d like to accomplish.”

In that regard, Winston is the perfect college point guard (with yet-to-be-determined NBA potential). He’s driven by teammates, by Big Ten and national title goals, and by the joy of the experience.

Winston was the Big Ten Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and the humblest star you’ll ever see. Do not mistake humility for satisfaction.

“We’re happy with the year we had, but at the same time, we’re hurt,” Winston said. “We could’ve gone farther, could’ve done more things, bigger things.”

‘We beat the odds’

Someone such as Langford, a five-star recruit determined to get his career back on track, could instantly add another dimension. Someone such as Henry, who at 6-6 is quick and athletic, will play a much larger role. The Spartans were supposed to be good this year, despite losing Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, but after the injuries, no one expected this.

“We weren’t supposed to do this, we weren’t supposed to do that,” Henry said. “We weren’t supposed to make it to the Final Four. We beat the odds multiple times. That’s the reason we all want to come back, because we know we can do this the right way. I’m never gonna stop working until I win it.”

The Spartans squeezed everything they could out of this scintillating run, and out of themselves, until a rugged opponent squeezed the last breath out of them. There’s certainly no shame in the defeat, and no limits going forward. They’ll lament lost opportunities because the title was ripe to be won, with Virginia waiting in the championship game, but I doubt this is their last good shot.

Winston has developed from a low-key, slow-paced guard to a marvelous play-maker and pace-maker. His athleticism has improved and so has his leadership, the biggest revelation.

“I knew he was a good enough kid (when Winston arrived), but he had a different personality than most people,” Izzo said. “As strange as it seems, and as much as him and I are on opposite sides of the spectrum as far as demeanor, I think I’ve come a little bit his way, and I think he’s come a lot bit my way. And I got a feeling next year he’s gonna take his game to another whole level, that’s been his battle cry.”

Another whole level awaits for the Spartans, with a couple more bodies and a bit more strength. If Winston can reach it, so can they.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski