Wojo: Led by Cassius Winston, Spartans putting it all together
East Lansing — The Spartans kept swatting and swarming, blocking and boarding. It was boundless energy, and it peaked midway through the second half when they forced a Maryland turnover and Tom Izzo erupted.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” he yelled and fist-pumped, then charged onto the court during the timeout to bear-hug Cassius Winston.
That’s what they’re talking about these days, about a Michigan State team determined to remain relentlessly determined, diving into dirty work that wins games. No, it’s not always about having future pros on your roster, and the No. 6 Spartans are proving it. They won their 12th straight game, 20th straight in Big Ten play, blasting No. 13 Maryland 69-55 Monday night.
Michigan State (17-2, 8-0 Big Ten) is alone atop the Big Ten, biding its time, riding its star, Winston. March Madness is still weeks away — and so is Mitten Madness when the Spartans and No. 5 Michigan will meet twice in a four-game span — but the traits are forming here. Izzo has strongly resisted the urge to declare this team better than last year’s starry group, and that won’t change. It’s too early to say it, not too early to think it.
It’s not all Winston either, although many nights, it seems that way. The junior guard was clutch and clever again, with 14 points, seven assists and only one turnover, and the Spartans will need him to win games single-handedly sometimes. But if he can’t, they’re discovering all sorts of other pieces.
Nick Ward didn’t even score in the game, hounded by foul trouble. Josh Langford is still sidelined with an ankle injury. More is demanded of more, and more is being delivered by many.
Cast of many
Kenny Goins is becoming a reliable shooter and tremendous defender, and had 12 rebounds and three steals in addition to 14 points. Sophomore Xavier Tillman has become a plus-plus defender and blocked five Maryland shots. The Spartans collected nine steals and nine blocks, which helped put the ball in Winston's hands and he directed an effective fastbreak, with freshman Aaron Henry (six-for-seven shooting) racing to the basket.
Last year’s team won the Big Ten and finished 30-5, but lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, then sent two lottery picks to the NBA, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges (who attended Monday night’s game). This year’s team doesn’t have the freakish talent, but it’s impressive how it's compensated, filling in all the empty spaces.
Michigan State leads the nation in assists and defensive rebounds, and is third in field-goal percentage defense. That speaks to effort, cohesiveness and selflessness, and players expanding their games.
“I think we’re a little better defensively than I thought we’d be,” Izzo said. “We don’t have Jaren, but Nick and X have picked up the shot blocking. Our break has become more lethal, and defensively, I think we’re as good as we’ve been. We can knock people down right now.”
This was far from artistic, and Winston hit only 5 of 13 shots. And that’s why Izzo was racing onto the court with 7:47 left, after Winston ramped up and clamped down on the Terps’ leading scorer, Anthony Cowan Jr., who scored only seven points, 10 below his average.
Grin and bear it
By Winston’s estimate, it was the biggest Izzo bearhug he’d ever received for his defense, which is steadily improving.
“He was really excited about that one,” said Winston, who banged his knee in the game and was slowed a bit. “I should’ve been a little bit better at the beginning so it wouldn’t come to that. But I stepped up to a challenge and he loves that.”
Loves it? Izzo lives for it. And in some ways, this is more the kind of team he prefers, built around a do-it-all guard and a ferocious defensive mentality.
“It’s easy for me to jump on (Winston) for his defense, but in this game, he had to guard their best player, he had to run our team, and he got very little rest,” Izzo said. “I did challenge him at about the 10-minute mark, and I was really impressed, and it takes a lot to impress me. I’m not too hard on Cassius. He’s got a lot to give, and every week this year, I’ve seen him get better and better and better. I’m gonna keep pushing, and he’s gonna keep working.”
It was abundantly evident on this night, as the Spartans picked apart Maryland (16-4, 7-2), which had won seven straight. The Terps pulled within 11 late in the game, and then Winston took off on the break, went behind his back with the dribble, and flipped in a reverse layup for a 67-48 lead.
The Breslin Center crowd erupted, and if there’s any doubt who the Big Ten’s MVP is right now, there shouldn’t be. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon lamented that you have to “pick your poison” against Michigan State, but the Spartans have so many other options to counter.
It begins with Winston, always. But as we’re learning, there’s more to the Spartans than that, maybe a lot more than anyone ever expected.