MSU's Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry talk about the Spartans taking on No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — The senior point guard was told he’s too short and too slow for much too long. He has a funky shot, a mild-mannered demeanor and an old-school headband, and hardly looks the part.
Cassius Winston is the rarest of combo guards. He’s both the primary reason the Spartans are No. 1 in the preseason for the first time ever and could win Tom Izzo’s second national championship, and the primary reason they’re so unaffected by it.
“You look at it, like, why are we No. 1?” Winston said. “Not like we don’t deserve it, but what did we do to get here, and how do we continue it? We don’t have any top-10 draft picks, any lottery picks. We don’t have any one person that can do it alone, so we gotta stick together.”
Michigan State is not your traditional top-ranked college basketball team, as it prepares to open against No. 2 Kentucky tonight in New York City. The Spartans don’t talk loudly about winning it all, which should not be mistaken as a sign of weakness. Oh goodness, no. It should be viewed as a sign of humble awareness, knowing touted teams have stumbled before and excessive praise can chew at a team’s core.
To make their point, at the direction of Winston and junior Xavier Tillman, all the players dumped their Twitter accounts. They can neither bathe in plaudits nor wallow in criticism, at least not on that forum. In the grand scheme, that might not matter. To Izzo, it matters because it shows they know how thin the line is.
“I really like the lack of egos,” Izzo said. “I like the fact that nobody acts like they’re better than somebody else. The chemistry is good. When you get a lot of guys back, that’s important.”
NBA not in the picture
Winston had a chance to go pro but wasn’t highly rated and barely considered it. In preseason rankings on NBAdraft.net, Aaron Henry is 45th and Winston is 57th. Unlike some recent teams, the NBA won’t present a distraction, which leaves Izzo mildly conflicted. It would be nice to have NBA-type players to carry the team during the doldrums, or against another talented Kentucky squad.
But it’s great for Izzo to do what he loves, to connect on every level with players that desperately want to be coached, who have no illusions about otherworldly talent. The Spartans return three starters but lost three key players — Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward — from last year’s 32-7 team that won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and lost in the Final Four to Texas Tech. They also suffered a brutal blow when sharp-shooter Joshua Langford was ruled out at least until January because of a foot injury.
John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins preview the Michigan and Michigan State basketball seasons, which get underway on Tuesday. The Detroit News
In his 25th season, Izzo still wakes up every day worrying. He’s concerned about the power forward position, about Kyle Ahrens’ ankle issues and Langford’s absence. He’s worried about replacing 30 points and 15 rebounds from Goins, Ward and McQuaid. He’s worried he’ll use Winston too much and wear him out, and worried Winston won’t speak up if he does.
“My main thing is, are we gonna think we’re as good as people think we are, or are we gonna realize we got a long way to go,” Izzo said. “How do we adjust to Cassius and all the fanfare he’s gonna get and what does he do with it? … We’re not the Carolina team of ’09 that had four pros that came back to win a championship. Some people argue whether we have anybody like that. But I think we got damn good players and damn good kids. How do they react when the lights go on? If we’re fat and sassy, with the schedule we have, we’re gonna get knocked on our butts.”
Nobody knocks fat and sassy out of a team as effectively as Izzo, and yet this group seems determined to knock it out themselves. Izzo has had bigger, deeper, more-skilled teams, yet the Spartans returned to the Final Four last season after losing Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. to the NBA.
That 2018 team wore expectations like a heavy cloak, starting the season No. 2. But Bridges and Jackson were famously selfless, and everyone else waited around for them to take over.
That could happen with Winston, a favorite to win National Player of the Year, fully capable of dominating a game with remarkable guile and touch. He’s also capable of keeping everything in perspective, as a guy still considered a long shot to be a first-round pick.
“I feel like I probably got the most relatable story,” Winston said. “I don’t think anybody saw this coming, not even myself. So in this position, I tell (teammates) to trust it, enjoy every step of it, all the highs and lows, embrace them and learn from them.”
Plenty of talent
Let’s not get crazy downplaying their talent. Henry is an explosive 6-6 sophomore who rose rapidly in tournament play. Tillman is a 6-8 physical force. Gabe Brown, Ahrens, Thomas Kithier, Marcus Bingham and freshman Rocket Watts all have versatile skill.
But Winston remembers the championship-or-bust mentality unabashedly touted by players two years ago. In an attempt to embrace the pressure, perhaps they compounded it.
“Definitely I think this year we’re taking a better approach,” Winston said. “The national championship is the end goal, but we still have stepping stones. We’re not putting everything into one basket. You can’t be thinking so far ahead, you’re not even focusing on what’s right in front of you.”
So Winston locked himself in the weight room during the offseason and lifted five times a week instead of three, strengthening his upper body and legs. Last season, while his average minutes rose from 28.1 to 33.5, his 3-point shooting dropped from 49.7 percent to 39.8.
For this season to have legs, Winston needs to have his legs, and others have to do more. In a symbolic way, that means more on the scoreboard, less on the keyboard.
“I don’t want to say we’re sacrificing something important because it’s just Twitter, but it’s something my generation spends a lot of time on,” Henry said. “We should’ve been off Twitter last season. It’s just a way of showing coach, a way of telling us, that we need to lock in.”
The lock-in begins with Winston, and since winning the title in 2000, Izzo hasn’t really altered the model. He wants a strong-willed guard (Mateen Cleaves), deadly perimeter shooters (Morris Peterson) and a fierce defensive disposition. Izzo and Winston have sparred at times about Winston’s defense and turnovers, and as always, Izzo would like a bit more snarl out of his point guard.
“If you talk to Cassius about NBA opportunities, it was like sometimes he’s in awe of where he is,” Izzo said. “That is the neatest humbling feeling you can have for a star. What I’ve been told, though, is sometimes you’re too humble, and it hinders you from being great. That’s the happy medium we have to find. I want to make sure he knows I think he can become one of those special guys and help lead us to great things.”
Winston knows more than he shows, how to get to any spot on the floor, how to create any shot. He seems surprised he’s accomplished as much as he is, capable of winning it all, team-wise and individually. He might have only one more person to convince — himself.
Michigan State vs. Kentucky
Tip-off: 9:30 Tuesday, Madison Square Garden
TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM