By Norm Elrod
(CBS Detroit/CBS Local) — Cassius Winston, the Michigan State Spartans point guard, has suffered tendinitis in his knees for over a month. But it hasn’t kept him off the court, during his team’s injury-filled season. (Other teammates, like Nick Ward (hand) and Josh Langford (foot), haven’t been so lucky.) Winston has logged serious minutes of late, including all 40 in a big win over rival Michigan in late February. And Tom Izzo has inspired enough strong play from pieced-together lineups to keep the team in the top 10.
These Spartans have legitimately high hopes for the Big Ten Tournament next week and the NCAA Tournament after that. But their success will depend on the leadership of their recently promoted captain. And if Winston’s play of late is any indication, Michigan State looks prepared to do some damage in March.
Michigan State’s 6’1″ junior point guard grew up in Detroit, and played his high school basketball at University of Detroit Jesuit High. As a true point guard, Winston showed the uncanny ability to score and yet also involve his teammates. He averaged 21.9 points, 7.5 assists in his senior year. His Cubs went undefeated and won the Class A Michigan state championship.
Although he isn’t the quickest or most explosive player at the position, Winston plays hard and smart at both ends of the court. His skills earned him the title of Mr. Basketball of Michigan in 2016, along with interest from many top basketball programs, including Michigan.
Winston opted for rival Michigan State, where he contributed more as a passer than a scorer his freshman year. His 182 assists during the 2016-17 season tied for the Big Ten lead and placed him second only to Magic Johnson among MSU freshman. While his scoring lagged, he showed promise, suggesting the low point totals might just be a function of not being on the floor enough. Sure enough, 33 minutes against Northeastern — his longest game that season — yielded 21 points to go along with his 10 assists.
Winston’s success as a passer continued in his sophomore season, when he led the Big Ten in assists again with 241. His point production ticked up as well, as the now full-time starter logged more minutes on the court. He hit an absurd 49.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, which certainly helped. His 6.9 assists (with a stellar 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio) and 12.6 points per game were major factors in Michigan State’s 28-3 regular season record. However, the highly seeded Spartans bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in a disappointing second-round loss to Syracuse.
With a top-10 preseason ranking, Michigan State went into 2018-19 with high expectations. And despite injuries, they’ve risen to the challenge. The Spartans are currently ranked ninth in the country, with recent wins over Big Ten foes Nebraska, Michigan and Rutgers. They’ll face Michigan, currently ranked seventh in the country, on Saturday, with the top seed in the conference tournament potentially on the line.
Winston has remained a key factor in Michigan State’s continued relevance, again leading the Big Ten in assists (230) and assist percentage (44.5%). He’s also grown even more as a scorer, knocking down 47.3 percent of his shots for 18.8 points per game. Both stats place him in the Conference’s top 10. Winston put up a double-double against ranked Kansas, and 20+ against ranked Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan.
The Spartan has been nominated (again) for the Bob Cousy Award, given to college basketball’s best point guard. He’s also in contention for Big Ten Player of the Year and has an outside shot at National Player of the Year honors. Some consider him to be the team’s best player since Magic Johnson. Regardless of potential awards and accolades, Winston and Michigan State have to be respected come NCAA Tournament time. Anything less than making the Sweet 16 this year would be a disappointment.