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Michigan State's Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Malik Hall discuss the loss to Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Detroit News

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East Lansing — On the locker room floor, next to his chair, sat the familiar backpack, splashed with pink and green and a cartoon image, the Cash Money Bear. It was a reminder of a time not that long ago, and also forever ago, when the Spartans were making their Final Four run and Cassius Winston was the joyous conductor, backpack in tow.

Winston looks down at the colorful tote and smiles. Eight months ago, the Spartans were beating Duke in the Elite Eight and Winston was officially being introduced to the nation as an understated, undersized star, gliding through defenses and going places no one thought possible.

Now, past midnight on a Tuesday, Winston answers patiently as groups of reporters ask him what’s wrong with the offense, where was the team’s effort, how does Michigan State fix this? Duke came to town and blitzed the Spartans with energy and shot-blocking athletes, and the final score, 87-75, didn’t fully reflect the difference between the teams. These aren’t close to the same squads that met on March 31, when Michigan State beat the No. 1 Blue Devils, 68-67, in the Elite Eight.

Nothing is the same now, at least not yet, not for Winston or Tom Izzo or anyone else. The Spartans are 5-3, nearly four weeks since the unimaginable tragedy when one of Winston’s younger brothers and closest friends, Zachary, died by suicide. No one wants to belabor the pain but no one wants to ignore it, either. Frankly, no one really knows how to handle it, and while the on-court struggle pales in comparison, it can’t help but feel connected.

Nothing is normal right now. That doesn’t mean nothing will ever be normal again, or that the Spartans can’t fulfill their preseason No. 1 ranking, or that the disjointed lineup won’t snap into place. It just means, this will be harder than anyone could fathom, in every way.

Still growing

I asked Winston about the backpack and the joyous time it represented. He answered thoughtfully, his composure and pleasantness still perfectly intact.

“I wouldn’t say the joy is gone,” he said. “You gotta move on from it anyway. Last year’s team is not this year’s team. We’re still working hard, still working toward something. Once the outside noise kind of shies away and people turn their backs on you, all you got is the people in this locker room. It brings you closer together, to try to prove something together.”

As he almost always does, Winston was speaking first about the team, and the expected backlash when a championship favorite loses three times by the first week of December. Asked about himself, Winston said he was doing OK and appreciated the concern.

The hardest part about moving on can be the environment around you, the constant reminders, and the harsh reality that a long, tough season is just starting. Izzo has been frustrated, partly at his players, partly at himself for not knowing how to handle something he’s never experienced. Really, how could he know?

You watch MSU play, especially against Duke, and there is something missing. If it’s the standard early-season adjustments we often see from Michigan State, fine. But it’s almost as if people – players, coaches, fans – are reluctant to feel good, or show exuberance, or demand more. If it’s in respectful deference to Winston, that’s honorable. It’s also something Izzo knows he will have to change.

“I was told (in situations like this), you don’t wait for normalcy,” Izzo said. “I’m just not doing a very good job of pushing that. Yeah, we’ve been through more hell than I think I’ve ever been through in my career, but at the same time, that has no basis for why you don’t play hard. That falls on me. Those who want to rip, that’s who you should rip.”

No excuses, Izzo has said again and again. And no holding back, he’s tried to say again and again. Barely 90 seconds into the Duke game, Izzo pulled Winston after a turnover and talked sternly to him on the sideline. It was the beginning of a rough night, as the Spartans’ committed 14 turnovers and had 11 shots blocked, three by Vernon Carey, the sensational 6-10 freshman who was recruited heavily by Michigan State.

Winston, a National Player of the Year favorite, finished with 12 points on four-for-14 shooting. He played 37 minutes, and at times, his classic hesitation dribble and savvy drives were on display. If anyone can work through inconceivable adversity, it would seem to be Winston, surrounded by a strong family — his youngest brother, Khy, sat next to his locker Tuesday night — and a powerful Michigan State support system.

This team has issues

But in pure basketball terms, MSU has cracks. Without the 3-point shooting of the graduated Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, or the injured Joshua Langford, defenses chase Winston all over the floor, forcing him to give the ball up to teammates who haven’t shot well. The Spartans were four-for-16 on 3s against Duke, and sophomore Aaron Henry, expected to seize a major role, had two points. Freshman guard Rocket Watts was one-for-seven.

“Teams are doing a good job of keeping people on me, denying me,” said Winston, who’s still averaging 17 points per game. “Last year, you could trap me as much as you want, but if you did, a guy on top would hit a shot. We just gotta figure that out and things will open up. We’ll be all right.”

In the meantime, the experimentation will continue, and I suspect Izzo will indeed push it. Asked about Henry’s struggles, Izzo simply said, “I don’t know, next question.”

For the second straight game, sophomore Marcus Bingham Jr. was in the starting lineup instead of Thomas Kithier, as they hunt for a front-line guy alongside Xavier Tillman. For perspective, it’s not as if the Spartans have been sluggish all year, losing relatively close games to Kentucky and Virginia Tech. Duke, despite its inexplicable stumble against Stephen F. Austin, has the skill to roll anybody.

MSU opens Big Ten play Sunday at home against Rutgers, and might not be severely tested until Jan. 5, when Michigan comes to the Breslin Center. Now is a good time to find some sense of familiarity, without the glare of a No. 1 ranking or a top-10 ranking.

“Either way, we’re gonna make it normal again, somehow, someway, we’re gonna get back to where we were,” said Tillman, who had 20 points against Duke. “Whether it’s guys changing roles, or guys getting more minutes, or guys getting more aggressive, or getting Cash off the ball and letting him play some two, regardless, we’re going to get back to normalcy.”

It will take some time and the players talk emotionally about making the trip together, getting tighter and tougher along the way. They’ve circled around Winston, spending more time with him, sharing tears, whatever he needs, whenever he wants to talk.

The hope is, the tightness and toughness will translate onto the court, and Winston will see and show the joy again. He hasn’t been his normal smiling self as much, and there has to be some physical weariness, on top of the emotional burden. He is a wounded man, and on the court, he is a marked man.

“We gotta figure out what makes us tick, what’s gonna get us going,” said Winston, wearing a T-shirt from Albion, his brothers’ school. “Defenses are doing a good job of following me. It’s just a little tough right now getting space to create.”

Getting space and creating space, off the floor and on the floor. It’s a challenge larger than a college player should have to face, in a competitive arena that can be unforgiving. While lifting himself and his team, Winston must play with the heaviest weight imaginable, trying to find his way back to a place that, at the moment, probably seems far away.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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