Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about the chances of Cassius Winston playing on Thursday as he deals with the death of his brother. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — For the first time in his career, Tom Izzo isn’t exactly sure what to say.
A coach almost always has the answers, or at least he or she certainly thinks that’s the case. Izzo is no different. But, he’s never experienced what his team is dealing with now.
On Tuesday afternoon, the third-ranked Spartans finished their second practice in as many days in preparation for Thursday’s matchup with No. 12 Seton Hall in Newark, New Jersey, as part of the Gavitt Games. It’s been three days since senior guard Cassius Winston learned his brother, Zachary, had been killed after being struck by a train near the campus of Albion College, where Zachary was a sophomore on the basketball team.
The loss has been devastating for the Winston family, but considering how close all of the Winston brothers — Albion freshman Khy, included — are and with their connection to Michigan State, the entire team is feeling a profound sense of loss.
“Our players were close to his brother, too,” Izzo said. “So it's not just how you feel about one of your teammates’ brothers, it's how you feel about your teammates’ brother who also was your friend and a guy you knew very well. When people see things like that happen and when you're young, I mean, it's scary, shocking. I don't know what words would be right.”
The Spartans (1-1) are doing what they can to navigate their own emotions while doing what they can to continue to support Winston.
“I mean, it's, it's tough for me,” sophomore Aaron Henry said, “but nobody knows exactly how he feels. You can assume, but you can’t put a finger on it.
“I'm just glad I can be there for him and that he allows me to be his friend and his brother. It's a blessing to be a part of his life.”
Michigan State's Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry talk about facing Seton Hall while supporting teammate Cassius Winston. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
As for Winston, he practiced on Monday and again on Tuesday with plans to travel with the team to Newark for Thursday’s game. That, of course, could change over the next day, but Izzo said if Winston does travel he’ll almost certainly play.
But as his father, Reg, and brother, Khy, watched courtside at practice Tuesday, Izzo pointed out that nothing is certain right now and that he’ll support Winston in whatever choice he makes.
“It’s going to be day-by-day for a week or two,” Izzo said. “Right now he plans on going, and if that changes tomorrow, it changes. I think if he goes he'll play, but leaving his family and that right now is probably going to be a difficult thing for him. I talked to the whole family today and we're all on the same page, but right now he plans to go and we’ll plan on playing him
“Leaving his family right now, that’s the hardest.”
Leaving the court is, too.
Playing the game has proven to be the place Winston and his teammates can take a couple of hours and forget about reality. It took some time for that to kick in during Monday’s practice, one Izzo said wasn’t very good, but by Tuesday it started to look more like a normal Michigan State practice.
There weren’t quite as many smiles and laughs, but normalcy at least started to return.
“Just to kind of get lost in it,” junior Xavier Tillman explained. “That’s a huge thing and that happened for me during the during the game, the Binghamton game. I was just playing. I just got lost in the game, lost in the excitement, in the crowd with my teammates. And then when I was off the court, even on the bench and I'm off the court, just kind of like trying to get out of my own head.
“So definitely it helps to be on the court a lot.”
The more the Spartans do it, the easier life will get.
That will take much longer for Winston, but he’ll have his family — his teammates and coaches included — there to help him.
“I think we know we have to move on,” Izzo said. “Everybody talks to everybody about 'Life doesn't stop.' It's easy to say those words. It's hard to implement those words. But I think getting Cassius out on the court helps Cash. As he said to me, ‘When we stop in practice, I start thinking. In the game I was just going up and down.’
“So maybe that will help him some.”
Michigan State still hasn’t gotten official word on the eligibility of transfer Joey Hauser. The Spartans’ application for a waiver making Hauser eligible immediately was denied by the NCAA but Michigan State appealed that decision.
On Tuesday, Izzo said Hauser was granted an interview with NCAA officials as part of the appeal process, a meeting that would take place sometime after Nov. 18.
“He has a third phase they sometimes give you, like an interview,” Izzo said. “That's going to be coming up somewhere after the 18th. … We’ve been planning without him for this long, so it doesn't make it any more difficult.”