Bob Wojnowski, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins break down MSU's win over UM The Detroit News
East Lansing — For much of this game, for much of this season, it was all about Cassius Winston, a marvel in a program that knows a bit about magic. He was magnificent again when he had to be, dribbling through opponents, through foul trouble, to the hoop again and again, straight into championship lore.
Winston is the overriding story of this team, but it’s time to acknowledge the story is growing. Michigan State grabbed a share of the Big Ten title with a second-half onslaught and pulled away from Michigan 75-63 Saturday night in Breslin Center, which thumped in wild celebration before and after the final buzzer. The ballyhooed showdown lived up to the billing for a while, until Winston took over, with ample help from his teammates.
Don’t lose sight of that, either. While being mesmerized by Winston, it’s easy to overlook how the Spartans have grown as a team, how role players have plugged holes created by injuries. After a slow start, Winston finished with 23 points and seven assists, and nearly matched his dominant performance in the first victory in Ann Arbor.
He’ll certainly be the Big Ten Player of the Year, and his numbers generally are eye-popping. So are these numbers: Michigan State outrebounded the Wolverines 46-20 and blocked eight shots. Xavier Tillman had 17 points and five blocks, and along with Kenny Goins (16 rebounds), menaced Michigan inside.
The Spartans (25-6) completed the series sweep and head to the Big Ten tournament as the top seed, one slot higher than co-champ Purdue. But there’s no way that tournament will match the emotion of this night. As seniors Matt McQuaid and Goins dropped to the court and planted a kiss on the Spartan helmet with 13.2 seconds left, Tom Izzo stood near his bench and fought back tears. While Winston is the unrivaled heart of this team, guys like Goins and McQuaid and Tillman provide bountiful soul.
It was Izzo’s ninth Big Ten title in 24 seasons, the second in a row, and he admitted he appreciated it like no other.
“I’ve got a special group, not the most talented group I’ve had,” Izzo said. “They really get along, they play well together, and I’m damn proud of them.”
'It looked like we didn't want it'
The easy analysis of this game is that Michigan’s offense again bogged down, and Michigan State’s defense again rose up. The Wolverines (26-5) built a 12-point first-half lead but John Beilein lamented his team’s lack of poise in the second half, when a 20-2 run by the Spartans flipped it completely.
Michigan will have to shoot better, and will have to keep Ignas Brazdeikis out of foul trouble, to make a real run in the tournaments. Brazdeikis controlled the game early and finished with 20 points, but fouled out with 5:10 left. It was a rough night for the Wolverines from a physical standpoint, as Charles Matthews (ankle) warmed up but couldn’t go, and they struggled to adjust to the Spartans’ force.
MSU's Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman talk about the win over Michigan. The Detroit News
“Rebounds 46-20? Good lord, we gotta box out, man,” Isaiah Livers said. “They won a lot more 50-50 balls than we did. At first, it seemed like they didn’t want it, and in the second half, it looked like we didn’t want it. One thing about Michigan State that they don’t get credit for is their role players, off the bench and in the starting five, just do the right thing every time.”
That’s pretty much what the Spartans have done all season, in the absence of any stars outside of Winston. Goins, who came to Michigan State as a walk-on, has become a lethal outside shooter. The 6-foot-8 Tillman has become a defensive weapon at the rim. McQuaid has become an all-around contributor, on offense and defense.
When Josh Langford was lost for the season with a broken foot, and then Nick Ward went out a month ago with a broken hand, not many thought the Spartans could — dare we say? — play even better. On the court after the victory, as he honored the seniors, Izzo announced Ward would return in the next week. The ironic positive from the injury is, the Spartans have found others they can count on.
“Kenny and Matt and even me, you couldn’t expect the type of years we’re having,” Winston said. “Nobody expected us to be here, nobody expected us to last this long, but we got it done.”
If there was any doubt within the team, Izzo squashed it quickly with a fiery 7 a.m. meeting the day after Ward’s injury. He convinced the Spartans they still had a shot, and obviously they did. After all, this was a team picked to win the Big Ten, ranked 10th in the AP preseason poll. The pollsters didn’t do so poorly, by the way, as Michigan was ranked 19th and Purdue 24th, and sure enough, they were easily the three best teams in the conference.
On the attack
If the Spartans are to go on a tournament run, they’ll have to keep pumping energy into Winston, who will have to keep finding teammates in ever-expanding roles. Winston has dealt with tendinitis in the knees but said he felt OK Saturday night. Thanks to foul trouble, he “only” had to play 31 minutes, and again broke down Michigan’s defensive dynamo, Zavier Simpson.
The defining moment came with about a minute left, when Winston dribbled all over the court, bouncing off Michigan players, dodging traps, weaving from one side to the other. Before the Wolverines could foul him, he zipped the ball to a wide-open McQuaid for a dunk that ratcheted the decibels to the highest level of the night.
That’s what Winston does, dominating the ball without dominating the shots, and his teammates appreciate it.
“It’s nice when he’s dribbling like that, because you can relax a bit,” Tillman said with a smile. “You don’t have to crash the boards right away. You can just watch.”
The more opponents watch Winston, the more they’re forced to notice others. He averages 19 points but only takes 13 shots per game, remarkable efficiency from a remarkable player. He has astounding court vision and has developed a classic hesitation dribble, which often ends with him gliding to the basket and dropping in a floater.
Izzo wasn’t happy with any element of the Spartans’ game early Saturday night, and they trailed at the half 35-29. After a pleasant little halftime pep talk and a few adjustments, Michigan State took over. Winston started attacking the basket and scored 16 of 23 points in the second half, capped by a nifty 3-point bank shot that finally gave the Spartans the lead.
“Halftime was a character check for us,” Izzo said. “And that’s the reason he’s the MVP in this league, because when winning time came, he made winning plays.”
Winston does it as effectively as any point guard in the country. And make no mistake, he’ll have to keep doing it for the Spartans to play deep into March. At times, he’s a one-man show, but this has become much more than a one-man team.