Matt Charboneau, James Hawkins and Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News break down Michigan State's 87-69 victory over Michigan at the Breslin Center. The Detroit News
East Lansing — You run out of adjectives, you run out of strategies. When Cassius Winston is doing all he does, dissecting and desecrating every defense he sees, sometimes all that’s left is to offer a respectful laugh.
Juwan Howard had to chuckle near the end of Sunday’s rivalry clash, dominated by Michigan State’s senior point guard, who arguably played his best game ever. This is where we are now, running out of superlatives for Winston, after he scored a career-high 32 points and the Spartans pulled away from Michigan 87-69 at a rollicking Breslin Center.
As Xavier Tillman, also superb with 20 points and 11 rebounds, prepared to inbound the ball to Winston in front of Michigan’s bench in the closing minutes, they heard Howard’s voice.
“I think he told us, can you chill out for me a little bit?” Winston said, smiling broadly. “He gave us a lot of respect, and I got a lot of respect for him.”
So, did Winston harbor any thoughts of chilling at the end of a scorching afternoon?
“No chilling out, no, never. Gotta keep going.”
Flashing green light
The Spartans (12-3, 4-0 Big Ten) have it going now, dramatically and passionately displayed against their rivals. It was a feisty scrap, featuring a brief shooting duel between Winston and Zavier Simpson, as well as a technical-foul duel between Howard and Tom Izzo. This was Howard’s rivalry debut as head coach, and while he downplayed the emotional fervor, you could tell this meant as much as ever for both coaches.
Although the Wolverines (10-4) played without their top shooter, Isaiah Livers, they made the Spartans a tad uncomfortable, cutting the deficit to eight with seven minutes left. But Michigan State gets comfortable very quickly when Winston has the ball. This is the Winston the Spartans were expecting to see again, after missing a game with a sore knee, and this is the Winston the rest of the conference (and the country) should be afraid to see.
Izzo, who won his fourth straight in the rivalry, has witnessed many team victories like this, when the Spartans crank up their fastbreak and attack the boards. But even he could hardly recall such an individual performance.
“(Winston) just looked more aggressive and focused, and in the huddles, he was telling guys what to do,” Izzo said. “You know he was going to get a lot of attention today and it was one of the greater performances that this building has seen. I take my hat off to him, I really do — until tomorrow, then it’s back to dog eat dog.”
That’s fine with Winston, who’s getting his legs and his emotional stability back after the tragic loss of his brother two months ago. It wasn’t just his stat line – 32 points (11-for-19 shooting) and nine assists, but the dramatic, timely flair. Honest to goodness, if the Magic moniker wasn’t already taken at Michigan State, it’d be Cassius’.
It’s hard to say which is more impressive — the pinpoint passing, the maneuvering that defies physics and geometry, or the clutch deep shooting. His connection with Tillman is growing stronger too, as if they know exactly where each other is going to be, especially on the fastbreak. It helps that they’re tight off the court as well.
When Winston flipped a pass over his head to a leaping Tillman for a dunk to make it 50-38, the crowd erupted as loudly as ever. Later, with the lead down to 10, Winston plucked the ball from big Jon Teske in the paint, weaved upcourt and scooped in a layup that essentially ended it. Izzo was nervous that Winston might try to do too much on the big stage, with the national CBS audience, but he played with a ruthless serenity, if that’s possible.
“We call those kill shots,” said Winston, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. “I don’t know how to explain it, but the shot feels like five points when you can hear the crowd getting louder. … I feel like the big games are the joy, where every play matters and you just go after each other. I love when Michigan’s playing well, it makes the game that much more fun. I won’t say we’re hitting our stride or hitting our peak, but we’re on an upward trend.”
It’s surprising Winston had never topped 30 points in a game, not so surprising when you consider he’s always trying to get others involved, and averages six assists. The Spartans are 4-0 in the Big Ten, the only unbeaten team left, and have another home game against Minnesota next. Izzo is far from giddy, knowing there’s plenty of basketball ahead.
Michigan State's Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Gabe Brown break down the Spartans' victory over Michigan. The Detroit News
The same is true for Michigan, 1-2 in the conference. Livers’ absence was a factor, as the Wolverines seemed hesitant to shoot, and Izzo switched up the defense to slow Teske. Both these teams are packed with experience, and by the end of the conference season, I suspect both will be thoroughly dangerous.
The difference is, nobody has a player like Winston, who’s exhausting defenses and exhausting observers trying to drum up fresh descriptions. Howard called him a “superb, phenomenal player.” Yep, those words work.
So do these from Izzo: “I've got the most unselfish superstar maybe ever, a guy who can score that many points and still be as unselfish as he is. That makes it easier on the coach and easier on the players. I mean they pull for him because they love him and they appreciate him, not because he's the best player.”
It's easy to pull for a guy like Winston, and even easier to appreciate what he’s been through, and what he’s still capable of doing. Sometimes you marvel at the unorthodox artistry. And yes, sometimes you simply shake your head and laugh.