East Lansing – Michigan State was playing it safe by keeping Cassius Winston out of the lineup during Sunday’s victory over Western Michigan, and considering some the injury issues the Spartans have had, it makes perfect sense.
Winston, who suffered a bone bruise in his left knee during a non-contact drill in practice on Friday, missed the first game of his MSU career and had a streak of 56 straight starts snapped. However, it’s likely it will turn out to be a one-game break as the senior should be back for the return to Big Ten play Thursday when No. 14 Michigan State hosts Illinois.
“I think he’s going to be able to go,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the first of two practices on Tuesday. “I’m just making sure that’ I’m bringing him along slowly.”
Rushing the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year back before he’s ready would be a mistake, and with Joshua Langford gone for the season and Rocket Watts working his way back into the rotation after missing four games, the Spartans (10-3, 2-0 Big Ten) can’t afford another hit to the backcourt.
Winston took part in roughly half of the morning practice on Tuesday with plans to be limited in the evening, as well.
“We're just feeling it out right now,” Winston said. “I was able to go the first half of practice before they pulled me out. They don't want to rush into it, just being careful about it.”
Winston, who is averaging 17.6 points and 6.1 assists, said if Sunday’s game would have been a Big Ten game he likely would have played. Instead, he spent the 122nd game of his Michigan State career watching from the bench.
It was a perspective Winston has rarely had in his career, but watching like a coach helped.
“It was good just to see a lot of things from (the coaches’) perspective,” Winston said. “You don't really get a chance to see that because you're a player. So just to see certain guys missing assignments or how often we make mistakes and things like that, you see how much we gotta fix. You kind of can tell why (the coaches) be acting so crazy over there.
“It was a good experience.”
For a player that averaged nearly 34 minutes a game last season and is playing 31.1 minutes a game this season, the missed game might have come at the right time.
The last time Winston played was Dec. 21 against Eastern Michigan, followed by four days off before returning to practice. If he plays Thursday against Illinois (9-4, 1-1), that’s nearly two weeks off, something that won’t happen again the rest of the season.
“I think it kind of worked out,” Winston said. “Just to have that, another week to just kind of rest and strengthen it up, because once the Big Ten gets going it's a battle all the way through. So it might have been a blessing in disguise.”
It’s not the sort of break most players could handle.
Winston, though, knows Michigan State’s game plan inside and out and sees the court as well as anyone. Still, it’s not like the Spartans will suddenly start holding the most important player on the team out of practice on a regular basis.
“Yeah, but I need him in great shape and I need him shooting the ball really well, so that means you need reps,” Izzo said. “So it’s a six-of-one half-dozen of the other, but as far as mentally he can pick up stuff watching, sleeping or playing.”
“You still need to practice, though, to lock in your rhythm,” Winston said. “It's kind of hard to jump into a game and be ready to go. So practices help with that, to keep your rhythm going. But in terms of scouting report, in terms of knowing the other team’s players and things like that, I’m pretty much good in that area.”
'Easing him back in'
While Michigan State awaits Winston’s return, getting Watts back has helped. After missing four games with a lower-leg injury, Watts played 12 minutes against Western Michigan, scoring nine points and handing out five assists.
“He still isn't 100 percent, maybe not even 80 percent,” Izzo said. “But at least now we know it's healing and there's no damage that can be done. So we’re easing him back in. That's why (he played) 12 minutes the last game.”
… Izzo said fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens is battling a sore Achilles.