'I love him': MSU's Tom Izzo expects emotional sendoff for resilient Cassius Winston

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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East Lansing — Cassius Winston admitted he’s not sure how he’ll feel when he walks onto the court at Breslin Center for the final time.

How could he?

Considering what he’s been through in just the past four months, trying to get a handle on what will be running through his head is no simple task for the Michigan State senior.

Cassius Winston makes a basket during MSU's win over Michigan in January.

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” Winston said. “I don't know what it’s gonna feel like. I guess you won't know until the time comes.”

The time has come for Winston to play his final home game as a Spartan. He’ll be joined by fellow seniors Kyle Ahrens, Joshua Langford and Conner George when No. 16 Michigan State (21-9, 13-6 Big Ten) hosts No. 19 Ohio State (21-9, 11-8) on Sunday in the regular-season finale.

But all eyes will, no doubt, be on Winston.

There are obvious reasons. His four years at Michigan State will go down as some of the best in program history, no matter how the next few weeks play out. And to guess his No. 5 will someday be lifted to the rafters might be one of the safest bets in existence.

The reigning Big Ten player of the year has done virtually everything on the court. He was part of a marquee recruiting class that included Langford, Miles Bridges and Nick Ward and has dazzled fans with jaw-dropping passes and 3-pointers that have felt like gut punches to every team in the Big Ten.

Along the way he’s helped Michigan State win two straight Big Ten titles — the Spartans will play for a third in a row  Sunday — and led them to the Final Four last season, the eighth under coach Tom Izzo.

Off the court he’s been an ambassador for the program and the university, offering some of the most thoughtful insight two years ago when Michigan State as a whole was beginning to learn the scope of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal. He graduated in three years with a degree in advertising management and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in sports management.

As Winston prepares to say goodbye to the Spartans fans on Sunday, it’s easy to say he is one of the most beloved players to ever wear the green and white.

More: Frustrating careers coming to an end for Michigan State's Langford, Ahrens

“I've grown into a man here,” Winston said. “I came in as a boy, a young child, and now I’m going out as a man.”

A lot of that growth is natural for a kid who first arrives on a college campus. For an athlete like Winston, the process is public. Everyone sees the growth, the ups and downs, the wins and losses.

Winston has always handled it like a champ, endearing himself to the Michigan State fanbase.

But things changed dramatically back in November. Just one game into the season, one that many expected would include Winston potentially becoming the national player of the year on the preseason No. 1 team in the country, Winston suffered an unimaginable loss. His brother, Zachary, a sophomore at Albion College, took his own life.

Winston played the next day, his heart torn apart for everyone to see. At the time, being on the basketball court was his solace. That has evolved over the last four months as Winston has gone through the never-ending waves of emotions.

Some days good. Some days bad. It’s affected his play negatively at times, while at other times he’s looked unfazed.

Through it all, his coach has left no stone unturned in trying to learn how to best help Winston and his family. Winston’s parents have urged Izzo to coach Winston hard, something that hasn’t been easy for Izzo. Lately, that has been changing, including Tuesday’s victory at Penn State when the player and coach went at each other during a timeout, the entire incident shown live on ESPN.

Afterward, Izzo brushed it off before again crediting how Winston has carried himself all season.

“Cassius Winston is definitely one of the best college basketball players in the country,” Izzo said. “And there’s not one human being in this room, including me, who could have done what he's done and what he's gone through. We forget that. We all do. I do sometimes, and that's why I did an average job coaching him half the year. I think thanks to his family, thanks to him, thanks to myself. … I just got a job to do and it's been very difficult for him, very difficult. But he’s shown his true colors, man

“I love him. So I'll go hug and kiss him and see if someone puts that on camera then.”

There’s sure to be plenty of cameras rolling Sunday, and there’s no doubt the tears will come for Izzo.

For Winston? Again, he’s not sure. He’s processing the end of his Michigan State career during one of the most difficult stretches of his life while also being expected to carry the team on another conference title and make a deep tournament run.

More: 'We never gave up': From sliding to surging, Michigan State reaches Big Ten title doorstep

“This feels different,” Winston said of a potential Big Ten championship. “Just how much we went through as a team. The different types of tragedies, losing our best player, guys hurt, (Xavier Tillman) had a baby. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a great thing, but all these types of things could be distractions.

“People could have counted us out many times. We didn't complain, nobody made excuses. We kept fighting, we kept working and at the end of the day, we’re playing for a championship. I don't think a lot of teams can do that given all the circumstances that we've been through.”

Not many players could have persevered the way Winston has, either. Not only has he kept playing, he’s cemented himself as one of the best in program history, perhaps even Big Ten history.

He’s not gathering the national love when it comes to awards, but Winston is third in the Big Ten in scoring (18.3 points per game), is fourth in assists (5.9 per game) and is first in 3-point shooting percentage (.426). Earlier this season, Winston became the fifth player in Division I history to score more than 1,900 points while handing out more than 850 assists.

Cassius Winston and coach Tom Izzo.

When all is said and done, his jersey will almost certainly be retired.

“It was definitely one of my goals,” Winston said. “It didn't look too promising at one point, but I don't think that's my decision. If it was my decision I’d put everybody’s numbers up there.”

Like a true point guard, Winston was setting up his teammates. He’ll get one more chance to hand out some assists on his home court Sunday, then it’s on to the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

The goal is to cap an amazing four years with a national title. If not, though, it will be easy to see how Winston’s time in East Lansing was championship level. On the court and off, few have matched him.

“I've been lucky to have him for four years,” Izzo said. “Who would I take in front of him? Maybe Magic (Johnson).

“But he's been through a lot here. When you think about all the things that have gone on in his four years, and yet he  has a chance to play for his third Big Ten championship. That speaks volumes because all the things that have happened.”

As Winston said, he became a man at Michigan State. It wasn’t typical. He’s endured unimaginable personal grief. But as things wind down, he’s relishing every moment as a Spartan.

“I enjoyed all of it,” Winston said. “I don't have any regrets about coming to Michigan State. You know, it's been home to me for four years and it's been really a blessing to play here.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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