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Cassius Winston stepping up for Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — Over the last couple of games, freshman point guard Cassius Winston has been the best player on the court for Michigan State.

When the offense is clicking, it’s almost always because Winston is the one in control. And it should come as no surprise in the last two games — including Winston’s first career start last week against Oakland — he is logging substantial minutes.

Winston played 33 minutes in the loss to Northeastern before seeing the floor for 30 in the win over Oakland. It’s not exactly the plan Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had for Winston, but with junior Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn struggling a bit with a sore foot, the need has surfaced.

“That is high,” Izzo said as Michigan State prepared to open Big Ten play Tuesday night at Minnesota.

“Tum, that foot had bothered him a bit in one of the games. We just didn’t want to press the issue and we knew we had Christmas coming up, plus I probably would’ve played those two together a little bit more.

“His minutes will definitely improve from where he was earlier in the year but that’s a lot of minutes to play for a freshman, so they’ll probably come down a little bit from that. I’m hoping to keep all my guys in the 20s right now, if possible, just because I think that’s what they need and what we need.”

Winston enjoyed a big night against Northeastern, scoring a career-best 21 while handing out 10 assists. He followed that with another eight assists in the win over Oakland, with fellow freshman Nick Ward the biggest beneficiary.

Ward had a career-high 25 points and pulled down nine rebounds while being named Big Ten freshman of the week. His progress has been mostly due to the play of Winston, who leads the conference by averaging six assists a game.

“I feel like Nick and Cassius are in a spot right now where they are making progress,” Izzo said of the duo. “It’s not perfect, there’s some things defensively … but I think Cassius is making some steps.”

MSU faces tall order in Big Ten opener vs. 12-1 Minnesota

Whether Winston remains in the starting lineup remains to be seen, and some of it will depend on Nairn’s health.

But there seems little doubt the Spartans will need Winston to continue his steady progress if they expect to contend in the conference.

It’s something Winston is fully aware of with conference play underway.

“We know how to play,” Winston said. “We know the intensity that we have to play with. We know the effort we have to play with. Stuff isn’t always going to go smooth. There are going to be some rough areas. There are going to be some bad calls. There will be a shot that they hit that they shouldn’t have, but we just have to keep pushing.”

Scheduling quirks

Michigan State is starting Big Ten play earlier than it has in several years, and it’s got a lot of company. Twelve of the conference’s 14 teams played either Tuesday or will play today, with Michigan and Ohio State getting the luck of the early bye. The Wolverines and Buckeyes won’t play until Sunday.

In fact, Michigan State and Northwestern, which square off on Friday, will have played two conference games before the end of the year. It’s not something Izzo or most coaches in the Big Ten are fond of.

“I have never been a fan,” Izzo said. “I have made it clear that if we are working on student rights and all of the things that we’ve got to do there should be a period of time over Christmas to rest. I think players need a break.

“I think coaches need a break.”

In 2011-12, Michigan State played its first Big Ten game on Dec. 28 and its second Dec. 31. That season worked out OK as the Spartans won a share of the Big Ten and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But Izzo believes a break of some sort is crucial, though it will be tougher next season with the Big Ten tournament being held a week earlier than normal so it can be played at Madison Square Garden.

“It used to be you’d get four or five days off at Christmas to kind of freshen up, you would get a chance to heal up and mentally get a break,” Izzo said. “I think coaches in general are not real pleased with having to play on the 27th of December. I just don’t think it is great for the Big Ten, I don’t think it is great for basketball and I definitely don’t think it is great for the coaches and players.

“Saying that you do what you got to do with what you are dealt and that is kind of what we will all do.

“Everybody needs a break and this year we just don’t get one.”