East Lansing — Cassius Winston had arguably the best game of his career Sunday in Michigan State’s victory over Michigan, a performance coach Tom Izzo called “one of the greater performances that this building has seen.”
The senior guard scored a career-high 32 points on 11-for-19 shooting while handing out nine assists as the Spartans beat the Wolverines for the fourth straight time. Every time Michigan looked like it was about to mount a comeback, Winston thwarted it with a drive to the hoop or a back-breaking 3-pointer.
It was vintage Winston as the 6-foot-1 guard proved, once again, he was the best player on the floor.
“He’s elite level,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said.
As Winston’s outstanding games continue to accumulate, he’s also putting himself in a position to put up numbers few, if any, ever have. With 1,675 career points and has 802 career assists, Winston is the first player in Big Ten history with 1,600 career points and 800 career assists. He also ranks 11th on the all-time scoring list at Michigan State and needs 44 more points to pass Paul Davis (1,718 points, 2002-06) and Mike Robinson (1,717 points, 1971-74) for ninth and 10th place in the MSU record books, respectively.
With 16 more assists, he’ll surpass Mateen Cleaves (817, 1996-2000) for the all-time lead at Michigan State.
And if his current pace continues, Winston will have a chance to finish the season as the first player ever to score more than 2,000 points and dish out 1,000 assists.
“It would mean the world to me because I like coaching guys that do things that are in rare air,” Izzo said. “That's the name of the game. Can you put yourself in a position where most people are looking up at you instead of down at you? That's one thing I think would be good and for him.
“The guy's been a giver since he got here. I said it his sophomore year in high school; he’s one of the best passers I've ever seen, and that continued and it continued to grow. I didn't know the offensive side of him, meaning the scoring side, but I did know the passing side early. And when I think of the assists guys that have been here that have been elite — Magic (Johnson) was elite. Mateen Cleaves, was really elite, and even Denzel Valentine was up there in that elite (category), and now Cassius.”
Winston is averaging 18.9 points and 6.3 assists through 14 games. With at least 18 games remaining (16 regular-season games and at least one each in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments) Winston would get to 2,000 points, but fall just short of the 1,000 assists. Put together a deep run in either, though, and it could happen.
Only four players in college basketball history recorded more than 1,000 assists, including Bobby Hurley of Duke in 1993 (1,076), Chris Corchiani of North Carolina State in 1991 (1,038), Ed Cota of North Carolina in 2000 (1,030) and Jason Brickman of LIU Brooklyn in 2014 (1,009).
Even if he doesn’t get to the 1,000 mark, becoming MSU’s all-time leader could happen by the end of the week as No. 8 Michigan State (12-3, 4-0 Big Ten) hosts Minnesota on Thursday before traveling to Purdue on Sunday.
“I'm proud of him,” Izzo said. “And I'm just thrilled that I got to coach two guys that were involved in that kind of thing. It's a tribute to both the players and I'm sure nobody’s a better cheerleader for Cassius than Mateen, and that's when you have a good culture and a good program.”
As freshman guard Rocket Watts sees his playing time slowly increase after missing four games with a lower leg injury, the next question will be whether to use him as a sixth man off the bench or move him back into the starting lineup.
Sophomore Gabe Brown has played well, starting the last seven games, and Izzo is still determining the best way to work out the guard rotation.
“We got (Watts) 17, 18 minutes in the last game and when we get up in the 20s then we'll make some decisions that we have to make,” Izzo said. “But it won't be anything like ‘Rocket needs (to start).’ It will be what they deserve, but it will also be what's best. Is Gabe, with his long range shooting, a more instant offense guy coming off the bench? Do we need Rocket’s defense out there a little bit more, especially against some teams, and his speed and competitiveness?
“I don't know. It won't happen this week in any way shape or form. I know (Watts will) practice today. I don't know what that brings for tomorrow, and that has to get more consistent.”
Managing Ahrens' minutes
Fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens has been bothered by an Achilles issue the past few weeks, and on top of his lingering back problems, Izzo says it will be a season-long fight to keep getting him on the floor for his 13.4 minutes a game.
“Kyle Ahrens is really day to day,” Izzo said. “It’s just is day to day. I'm going to have to adjust to that and I’m probably going to have to sit him out back-to-back practices and stuff. It's probably going to be the rest of the year, so I guess I'm getting comfortable that I know I’m probably going to have him for this many minutes a game.”