Portland, Ore. — Cassius Winston was named the MVP of the Victory Bracket at the PK80 Invitational on Sunday night, and that was big for the Michigan State sophomore.
The numbers backed it up — 45 points and 20 assists over three games — but after No. 4 Michigan State’s 63-45 victory No. 9 North Carolina at the Moda Center, the former UD-Jesuit star could just shake his head at the fact it was him, and not someone else.
“It’s huge, especially on a team with all these dudes,” Winston said in the Michigan State locker room as he held his MVP trophy. “It’s crazy, but I put a lot of work in, had a good tournament and had a good showing, so it feels great.”
It’s been clear from the start of the season that as Winston goes, so goes the Michigan State offense. He entered Sunday’s game averaging 13.2 points and 7.6 assists a game and even in a bad shooting night like against DePaul in the tournament opener, Winston still managed eight assists.
Joshua Langford, Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston talk about beating North Carolina 63-45 to win the PK80 Victory Bracket. Matt Charboneau
On Sunday, foul trouble limited him, but he had seven points, seven assists and, maybe most importantly, limited North Carolina’s Joel Berry to seven points on 2-for-11 shooting.
“Cassius Winston is starting to play,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said “What really excites me is I really like Berry and (Winston) did a pretty good job defensively. I’m always talking about his lack of defense last year and I think he’s turning that around right now. It’s fun to watch, fun to see guys grow a little bit.”
It was after Winston’s career-high 28-point outing on Friday in a victory over Connecticut that Winston talked about everything coming together. The defensive struggles he had as a freshman were no longer acceptable. If he wanted to be a complete player, he needed to get it done at both ends of the floor.
“If I don’t play defense I can’t be on the floor,” he said that night.
So, it was with that mindset he approached slowing the North Carolina point guard who entered the game averaging 17 points a game.
“He’s one of the top point guards in the country,” Winston said. “I wanted a shot to play against the best and that’s why we come here. For the most part, I think I did pretty well. I had a decent game. I could have done better, some shots I should have hit and things like that, and turnovers. But I had a good showing out here, made some things happen.”
It was early last week in the 1 vs. 2 matchup with Duke that Michigan State got dominated on the glass, giving up 25 offensive rebounds in an 88-81 loss at the Champions Classic.
Since then, things have started to swing back in a direction more typical for the Spartans. The won the rebounding battle in each of the last three games and against North Carolina, Michigan State held a 52-36 advantage while grabbing 11 offensive rebounds.
The turnaround has stemmed from continued work in practice.
“Because of lawsuits, lawyers and all of those fun things we can’t put football pads and helmets on anymore so you just got to sit there and bark about it and hopefully they listen that way,” Izzo said. “It’s not as much fun, but we got the point across.”
Turnovers have been an issue for Michigan State this season and it was again on Sunday as the Spartans gave it up 24 times, a season high.
“Twenty-four times, that’s almost an automatic ‘L’” Winston said. “To turn it over 24 times and win by however many points, props to the defense for holding it down.”
… Sophomore guard Joshua Langford joined Winston on the All-tournament team. He scored a career-high 23 against North Carolina and made a career-best five 3-pointers.