Lahaina, Hawaii — For those that have been hollering that college basketball needs to go to six fouls, Monday’s matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Virginia Tech at the Maui Invitational could be used as the latest piece of evidence in favor of the argument.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State’s unquestioned leader and best player, was on the court for just 8 minutes, 23 seconds in the first half Monday and watched as Virginia Tech seized momentum then held off a furious Spartans rally in the final minutes to pull off a 71-66 upset victory.
Winston never found a rhythm and was just 2-for-8 from the field. He hit a late 3-pointer as Michigan State chipped away at a 10-point Virginia Tech lead but his runner in the lane that would have pulled the Spartans within a point came up short as Winston smacked his hands in frustration.
“Yeah, it was difficult to sit that long,” Winston said. “Just got to be smarter than that and make better decisions for my team, and then to try to come back out and to try to play to that high level and stuff like that. It's kind of hard to get back in your rhythm, get back in the flow of the game.”
Michigan State has been in this position before.
In the season opener against Kentucky, both teams were dealing with using a deep bench as the whistles were coming early and often.
And Izzo was battling himself a bit Monday. He almost always takes a guy out after his second foul in the first half and did so with Winston. But the Spartans don’t have a backup right now that can keep things going with Winston on the bench.
It left Izzo second-guessing his choice, one he said he made because he didn’t have the confidence the officials wouldn’t hit Winston with another foul.
“I probably should have played Cassius,” Izzo said. “I didn't have a lot of faith. I thought it was — you know, right now, coaches are learning, officials are learning, players are learning. And I'm going to have to start playing my guys. I can't let them sit out.
“I just had no faith (in the officials). I thought one of (the fouls on Winston) was a ghost call and so I panicked. That's my fault, not theirs.”
While foul trouble slowed Winston on Monday, the senior continues to cope with the death of his brother, Zachary. It’s led to limited practice time as he’s spent more time with his family over the last couple of weeks and it’s led to Winston tiring quicker.
Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News talks about Michigan State's loss to Virginia Tech in the first game of the Maui Invitational. The Detroit News
It was evident Monday as Winston’s father, mother and brother were all on hand.
“He was a shell of himself today,” Izzo said. “I think it's been a lot on him. No excuses for me. I did the poor job, but I couldn't do what that kid has done, no way. And he just looked tired the whole time. I think it’s the mental stress that he's going through, and because he doesn't practice as much right now, physically I don't think he's in the shape he needs to be in.
“I asked him at halftime and he said, ‘You better keep grinding on me, coach, don't change one thing.’ Well, I got to tell you, that's hard for me and it's hard for him."
Michigan State is now in the loser’s bracket of the Maui Invitational and will face Georgia at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. It’s not the path the Spartans expected to take, but bouncing back will be critical with two more games over the next two days.
“You can't let one loss kind of ruin your trip down here,” Winston said. “It's still a business trip. We're still here to get better as a team.
"We took a step back today but we got to find a way to rally and come up with two big wins to keep pushing us forward in the season.”
Added sophomore wing Aaron Henry, who scored 18 against Virginia Tech, “It's going to be huge. We're going to find out a lot about ourselves individually and more importantly as a team. We got some adversity to face and we're going to see if we can overcome it and, obviously, we're going to just keep playing.”