Winston pushing Nairn for Spartan point guard duties

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Cassius Winston

East Lansing — Leave it to Tom Izzo to use football analogies when talking about his Michigan State basketball team, but as he says, there’s no quarterback controversy with the Spartans.

What that means is there’s no debate at the point guard position. For now, Izzo will continue to start junior Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn with freshman Cassius Winston coming off the bench. But with the progress Winston has been making the past few games, it could be getting harder for Izzo to stick to that plan.

And as Izzo has said since before the season, much of Winston’s progress can be credited to Nairn.

“Yeah, I don’t know if he’s forcing my hand,” Izzo said. “What I’ve really enjoyed is sometimes when you have a quarterback controversy it’s a little different in football because you’re only playing one. In basketball you’re always playing more than one no matter what.

“But the relationship those two have has been special. I give Tum credit for that. He knew coming in this could be him on bench and coming off (the bench). He’s embraced him like the pro’s pro I think he is. It’s been unbelievable and I think Cassius appreciates it and learns from it. But I’m not gonna hold him back and I’m not gonna be afraid to start him.”

That starting job might come sooner rather than later for the former U-D Jesuit star who was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball last year.

In the past three games, Winston has 25 assists against just six turnovers and scored a career-high 15 in the win over Oral Roberts. In the victory over Youngstown State on Tuesday, the offense seemed to flow better with Winston at the helm.

“Cassius is getting the ball in (the post) and Cassius can get in there and so can Tum,” Izzo said after the Youngstown game, “but Tum has yet to make the good decisions that Cassius has been making. We really have some guys with open shots and it’s a shame that his nine assists should have been 10, 11 or 12. I told Cassius that you better get on your boys because that’s how you make your hay is with those assists.

“But, he is feeling more comfortable. He has been better being comfortable offensively the last few games. If he makes that stride defensively it changes a lot of things.”

And while his offensive play has taken a jump, it’s his work in the defensive end that could be the difference in turning him into a great player.
Izzo praised Winston on Tuesday for his defense and it’s something Winston has been working hard to improve.

“I came with lot more energy to the defensive end,” Winston said. “That is a big thing they have been on me about, energy toward the game and intensity level. So today I came with that intensity and focus and let the chips fall where they may. As you can seem if I play with that intensity on the defensive end it carries over to the offense.”

Increased time for Winston doesn’t exactly mean Nairn will be pushed out. Izzo has shown he’s open to playing the pair together and Michigan State has had some of its better offensive stretches with both in the game at the same time.

Izzo pushing Spartans harder in practice

They played almost identical minutes on Tuesday — 25 minutes for Winston and 24 for Nairn — and that could continue.

“I don’t know what it will be but I think they’ll still play together some,” Izzo said. “I just hope Cassius keeps improving and I’d like Cassius to help Tum in the area that he’s deficient in, the shooting. And I’d like Tum to help Cassius in that area that he’s a little deficient in, and that’s guarding. If we get those two to improve in those areas of weakness, not only would we have two very good players, but you would see them playing together a little bit more.”

In the wake of the win over Youngstown, names like Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves were being used to describe Winston. Izzo wasn’t ready to anoint the budding star just yet.

However, he also understands the potential Winston has and what it could mean to his team — having a point guard who can do it all is the key to success.

“He is making strides now and he understands what he has to do, the intensity you have to play with in this league,” Izzo said. “We always say, if the head is on the rest of the body responds. If the head is dead the rest of body responds. So playing the point defensively, that’s an important position.

“He is rebounding a little better, pushing it a little better. He’s still not as consistent with it on the break and needs to stay in the middle a little bit, but he’s starting to make progress. Boy, and if he does, he’ll be a hell of a player.”

Tennessee Tech vs. Michigan State

Tip-off: 2 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: Tennessee Tech 4-6; Michigan State 6-4

Outlook: Tennessee Tech enters the game winners of two straight but as a program, the Golden Eagles have not defeated a Power Five conference team since beating Oregon State in 2007. … The last Big Ten win for Tennessee Tech came in 2006 against Northwestern. … Over the last two games, MSU freshman Joshua Langford is averaging 12 points and is 9-for-12 shooting, including 6-for-8 from 3-point range.