Wojo: MSU, UM hoops hopes riding heavily on the guards

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Cassius Winston, left, and Michigan's Zavier Simpson were both benched earlier this season due to their inconsistencies.

It’s all about seedings and ceilings this time of year. And don’t look now, but they’re rising rapidly around here.

Uncertainties just a few weeks ago have become big, broad possibilities for Michigan State and Michigan, setting up a potentially riveting March. The Spartans (26-3, 14-2) should win their 11th in a row Tuesday night against Illinois, are No. 1 in one poll and poised to win an outright Big Ten championship. Despite a few oddly low projections, Michigan State should head to the conference tournament in New York with a shot at a No. 1 NCAA seed.

The Wolverines just outslugged Ohio State for their fifth win in six games, and at 22-7, finally are climbing the seed projections, as well as the rankings. They’re 11-5 in the Big Ten and still could nudge ahead of Nebraska for fourth place and a double-bye in the conference tournament next week.

How did Tom Izzo and John Beilein get their teams here? And are these legitimately predictive rolls, or mere flashes of promise?

The answer to both questions, for both teams, is essentially the same. The Spartans and Wolverines have risen as their 6-foot sophomore point guards, Cassius Winston and Zavier Simpson, have risen.

Both were benched at times, frustrating in their inconsistencies. Winston was too casual with the ball, prone to turnovers. Simpson was unsure of his shot — free throws remain a problem — and didn’t officially assume the starting role over freshman Eli Brooks until Jan. 6.

Engines at the point

Now they’re the turbines, although in different ways. Winston commands the Michigan State offense, especially when Miles Bridges and Nick Ward are in foul trouble or having off games. Simpson commands the Michigan defense, which possesses far more snarl than you normally see out of the Wolverines.

“I feel like I’m the middle linebacker of the defense,” Simpson said after Michigan beat Ohio State, 74-62, Sunday. “Just playing hard, once my teammates see me doing it, it’s contagious and they’ll start doing it. That’s my role, to set the tone offensively and defensively.”

Simpson speaks with the edgy defiance of a scrapper who’s had to fight to get his job and keep it. He’s also shown he can be more than a defensive stopper. Against the Buckeyes, he rolled to the basket again and again, finishing with 13 points. He has a quirky-looking shot that partly explains his 3-point percentage (33.9) and free-throw woes (49.1).

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Winston speaks with smooth self-assurance, like someone who’s finally understanding how important he is. The errant passes still drive Izzo batty at times, but Winston’s game is refining nicely, as he learns how and when to take charge with the help of senior Tum Tum Nairn.

Winston was the catalyst in Michigan State’s historic comeback from a 27-point deficit against Northwestern, scoring 13 points in the second half. In the past eight games, he’s been superb, with 58 assists and 18 turnovers, and his 3-point shooting (53.9 percent) is on pace for a single-season program record.

“I do whatever I can to the best of my ability to win games and make shots,” Winston said. “When it’s there, I take my opportunities, and it’s my job to step up and knock them down.”

Both these teams have fascinating dynamics, with spirited, gifted freshmen — Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers for Michigan; Jaren Jackson Jr. for Michigan State. Michigan has more key juniors and seniors, led by Moe Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, which can compensate for a talent deficit. It certainly compensated the lone time the teams met, when the Wolverines won in East Lansing, 82-72.

Developing talents

Michigan’s expectations have risen steadily, and although it has tricky road games remaining — Penn State and Maryland — it could climb from a seven or eight seed to as high as a five. That would be a remarkable accomplishment for Beilein, who once again is extracting more out of seemingly less.

Michigan State’s expectations are exactly as high as they were at the start, as high as anybody in the country — Final Four and more. If you needed a reason to lower them, you could point to turnovers, but Winston’s shooting is starting to obscure his bouts of reckless flair.

“I always knew Cassius was big time,” Bridges said. “He always shows up when we need him. Going down the stretch, we always get the ball to him.”

While Winston’s challenge was to improve his defense, Simpson’s challenge was to improve his offense. Wagner remains the unique talent that could carry Michigan, but the Simpson-Abdur-Rahkman backcourt has become better than merely dependable.

Abdur-Rahkman is called “Rock” by coaches and teammates, and a little rock-and-roll can work. His composure is astounding, and he leads the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 6.2 (93-15). He’s a low-key senior who has developed into a lethal late-game option, and as he’s found his role, Simpson has found his own.

“We looked at (Zavier) and said we can develop this over time,” Beilein said. “We do know for sure, he’s a pit bull, and he’s going to give us everything he can every minute.”

That attitude trickles to others. The Wolverines’ long-standing reputation as free-wheeling shooters is getting updated, as they’re willing to slap muddy fingerprints on opposing teams. They lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (63.5 points), although that’s partly because their low-turnover offense reduces opponents’ transition baskets. But they’ve also become capable grapplers, and Wagner fired up the crowd with some playful muscle-flexing against the Buckeyes.

The Wolverines are playing with more energy and edge, like Simpson plays. So are the Spartans, with Winston eager to show he can be the guy whenever needed, wherever needed.

There are so many variables at tournament time — seeds, matchups, injuries — predictions become silly. Deep, talented Michigan State has the higher ceiling, obviously, but both teams have developing, determined point guards, and that’s the best place to start.