Cassius Winston can’t add to remarkable Michigan State legacy but goes out a winner

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The crowd at Breslin Center was already on its feet as Cassius Winston stood with a smile spread wide across his face.

Some 15,000 people were saluting Kyle Ahrens, then Conner George, seniors who were checking out of their final home game at Michigan State. But really, it was merely a warm-up for the star, one of the most beloved Spartans in recent memory.

Cassius Winston will be remembered at MSU for his performance on the court and his poise in the face of personal tragedy.

Winston was taking it all in. The game had long been decided. Michigan State had taken care of business against Ohio State, recording its fifth straight victory to earn a share of a third straight Big Ten championship.

As Ahrens and George waved to the crowd, the anticipation grew for Winston’s departure, one that was almost flubbed in the final seconds until Jack Hoiberg smartly committed a foul to stop the clock.

And that’s when it happened. The horn buzzed. In came Steven Izzo.

It almost caught Winston by surprise. He hugged Steven then embraced his other teammates on the court — Xavier Tillman, Hoiberg, Braden Burke then Malik Hall. The noise started to peak as Winston walked toward the center of the court, waving to the crowd, then blowing a kiss.

If all 15,000 could have returned that kiss at that moment, they would have.

Winston then untucked his shirt, bent down and planted a smooch on the Spartans logo. He hopped up, the grin growing ever wider. One more wave to the MSU faithful as he jogged toward the bench and his head coach.

There was Tom Izzo, eyes red, ready to embrace his star. The moist eyes were all Izzo’s as Winston said happy moments don’t move him to tears. Izzo and Winston lingered in their embrace before Winston made his way down the bench.

“I love you,” Ahrens said before grabbing Winston, who buried his head into Ahrens’ shoulder.

By the time the buzzer sounded and Michigan State’s win was complete, Winston and assistant coach Mike Garland were swinging from side to side, clinging tightly to each other.

Cassius Winston gave the traditional farewell to Breslin Center last Sunday, planting a kiss on the “S” logo at midcourt.

Later, Winston was joined on the court by his parents, brother and girlfriend as the Senior Day festivities continued. Through it all, the smile never left. This was the perfect way for one of the greatest players in program history to leave his home court.

“I wanted Cassius to enjoy every second he could be on that court,” Izzo said after the game.

Over too soon

Who could have imagined — in that moment capped by the raising of another banner, the third Winston had helped produce — that it would be the last time he’d take the court wearing No. 5 for the Spartans?

That was assured Thursday when sports as we know it in the United States came to an abrupt halt. With the country focused on doing what it could to stop the potential spread of the coronavirus, large gatherings were shut down, most notably sporting events. For Winston and the Spartans, the first shot came when the Big Ten tournament was canceled Thursday before they even left East Lansing.

Late in the day was the devastating news that the NCAA Tournament would not be played. That news effectively ended Winston’s career.

Telling the Spartans it was over was extremely emotional. Izzo told ESPN it was a “tear-jerking moment,” later adding it was one of the toughest things he’s ever done as a coach.

In an odd way, that’s how this Michigan State team might be remembered — dealing with its share of difficult news but always seeming to pull itself up off the mat.

Cassius Winston, left, and Xavier Tillman lifted a Big Ten regular-season trophy last week, but with the cancellation of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, it was the last prize they had the chance to win.

Winston was the epitome of that attitude. After being named Big Ten Player of the Year as a junior and leading Michigan State to a conference title and the Final Four, Winston decided he’d be back for his senior year with the goal of bringing home a national championship.

Things appeared to be lining up. Michigan State was named the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and few believed the regular season would be anything more than a warm-up for the Spartans.

But just days before that season was to begin, Joshua Langford was lost for the year because of his lingering foot injury and after just one game — a defeat at the hands of No. 2 Kentucky — Winston suffered the loss of his brother, Zachary, who took his own life.

The news staggered the entire program and devastated Winston. Somehow, he soldiered on.

It wasn’t always smooth. There were days spent in a haze for a player with the basketball sense of a Hall of Famer. The practices were sometimes tough to get through and there were games when it was clear Winston simply wasn’t dialed in.

Nobody could blame him.

Through it all, Izzo struggled to find the right balance for coaching his star while marveling at Winston’s maturity.

“There’s not one human being in this room, including me, who could have done what he’s done with what he’s gone through,” Izzo said during the final week of the regular season.

By then, Winston was starting to look like himself. It’s silly to think of him ever truly being himself again, but Winston looked loose, free. He seemed to be enjoying basketball again.

Closing strong

As he took off, so did Michigan State. The Spartans had slogged through parts of the season and lost four of five as February lurched on. But with the Big Ten title seemingly out of reach, Winston sparked his team to five straight wins, four coming against ranked opponents.

Over those five games, Winston averaged 20.8 points and 6.8 assists while shooting 17-for-24 from 3-point range. They got some help, but the Spartans grabbed a third straight Big Ten title, one they celebrated after Winston unknowingly played his last game in the green and white.

Tom Izzo on Cassius Winston: “There’s not one human being in this room, including me, who could have done what he’s done.”

“I went out a champion,” Winston said on ESPN on Friday. “It was not the season that we wanted, not the season that we kind of expected, but at the end we fought through a lot. We battled and we had a chance to hoist up a trophy. So my senior year, I feel like we did end it with a championship.”

Indeed, they did.

It wasn’t the championship Winston came back for. It wasn’t the season Winston came back for. But that image of Winston waving to the adoring crowd will endure.

So will Winston’s legacy. His 890 assists are more than anyone ever in the Big Ten and at 1,969 points he ranks sixth in Michigan State history, 27 points behind fifth-place Kalin Lucas. Add in three Big Ten titles and a trip to the Final Four, and it seems as though his No. 5 being raised to the rafters is just a matter of when.

The only thing missing was one more March run. The entire team deserved it. So did so many other teams around the country. It just seemed especially cruel that Winston was denied.

Winston admitted in his ESPN interview that it was a tough way to end, but acknowledged it was different for him.

“I feel like I’ve been through a situation that’s way worse,” Winston said. “I feel like relatively speaking there’s a lot of worse things that can happen. I got to enjoy my senior year, had a great team, a great coach. Everything about it was great on that end, so still having a chance to end as a champion, end it with my brothers, there’s no better feeling.”

A champion indeed. At Michigan State, that’s how Winston will always be remembered.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau