Green Light: How Cassius Winston Takes Over to Become Michigan State's Guiding Force

For evidence of how important Cassius Winston is to Michigan State, look no further than his individual 7–0 run that has them in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015.
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It is a three-and-a-half-hour drive due south on I-35 from Minneapolis to Des Moines, Iowa. Michigan State freshman Aaron Henry found this out the hard way, as he chased a curling Amir Coffey into the paint and rose to meet Minnesota’s leading scorer. Coffey’s left forearm crashed into Henry’s back as his right one flushed the ball through the rim, and as he snarled back up the court, a Golden Gophers–leaning crowd rose to meet him. Minnesota still trailed Michigan State by 13, but for a second, the margin felt much smaller. Henry, when he was later informed of the aforementioned distance to Minnesota’s campus, nodded. “That makes a lot of sense,” he said. “You definitely heard them, man.”

On the next play, Kenny Goins caught the ball at the foul line under duress and delivered a pass behind Matt McQuaid directly out of bounds. “You could barely hear yourself talk,” McQuaid explained. Naturally, it landed in the disdainful hands of coach Tom Izzo, who returned it to the nearest referee, sans eye contact.

The Spartans’ lead dwindled to nine in the moments that followed, rife with fouls and free throws and Gopher stops. It was suddenly clear this was a de facto road game for a No. 2 seed playing its fifth elimination game in eight days dating back to the Big Ten tournament (which the Spartans won). But the ball eventually found its way to Cassius Winston, who made sure Michigan State’s second-round game would be the story of an upset that wasn’t.

“You could feel them coming,” Winston said. “You could feel them marching. It was one of those things where everything was going their way.” He had been dealing with toe and knee injuries, and he had admitted to Izzo he was wearing down, and he had been turning it over and missing jumpers, and Michigan State hadn’t made the Sweet 16 in four years. To understand why the Spartans are where they are, then, all you need to know is what Winston did next.

Still up nine, with the shot clock dwindling down, Winston caught the ball outside the arc on the right side and then attacked, pulling the ball behind his back and fading away over an outstretched Gabe Kalscheur for two. 42–31. He licked his lips on the way back down the floor. On the next play, he and Kalscheur collided hard in pursuit of a loose ball. Winston readjusted his headband and played on. The Gophers iced a ball screen, funneling Winston left into 6'10" Daniel Oturu. Winston leapt off two feet, leaned forward, clicked his heels in mid-air, and floated up the sort of shot you only take when H-O-R-S-E has been going on 10 minutes too long. 44–31, Spartans.

“In practice, when we go into a little slump, he'll literally take the ball, run a play, he’ll find an open look, or he’ll bring it out, go four-low [one-on-one] and get a bucket himself,” Tillman explained, “That’s just what he’s good at.” Michigan State has lost consecutive games just once all season, a three-game losing streak in early February. They have lost one game since. These types of moments are why. “He’s one of those guys, he can feel the energy pick up,” Tillman said.

On Minnesota’s next possession, Winston stepped over and shot his left hand into a passing lane. Henry grabbed the ball and gave it back, and Winston pulled up for a three from the edge of the coaches’ box, completing a one-man 7–0 run. “That really killed us,” Coffey admitted. Michigan State led 47–31 with 12 minutes to go, and Minnesota never got much closer. “When he got back on the horse, the rest of the guys did,” Izzo said. “It’s pretty cool that he's got that much impact on our team.”

“Cash being able to release that pressure puts a lot of ease on everyone's shoulders. I felt a little cocky with it. Like, he did it. That’s Cash. That's what he does,” Tillman recalled afterwards, grinning. “I was like, well, you guys didn’t know he was going to be able to do that. I did.”

It wasn't always this way for Winston, who was less vocal and less mellow as a younger player, and used to be a slightly doughy permanent tenant in Izzo’s doghouse. He now claims a record of 63–12 as Michigan State’s starting point guard. Winston’s assist rate this season—indicative not just of his playmaking prowess but of the workload he shoulders—outpaced everyone in the country not named Ja Morant. He racked up 26 points in a first-round win over 15-seed Bradley, during which the Spartans trailed at halftime. “He just doesn’t let anything get too high or too low,” says Kyle Ahrens. “He just rides that wave.”

“That’s the magic man,” proclaimed Goins, the only player who was around the last time the Spartans advanced past the tournament’s first weekend in 2015. “It surprised me his freshman year. Last year, it started to become the norm. Now, it’s brush it off the shoulder, because that man should have been in the Naismith [Trophy] top four.” He paused briefly. “That might be a biased opinion.”

The Spartans’ focus shifts next to a Friday date with LSU, within an East regional overshadowed by Zion Williamson and No. 1 Duke. “We know what kind of team we are, we know what works for us, and we’ve been playing to that every game,” Winston says. Michigan State will not be the most gifted team in their pod, nor an unpredictable group to scout. They will simply have to play better to survive.

“It’s a lot on [Cassius],” Henry said, “but I guess an accumulation of things. On offense, he does it, but it's all five of us on defense, rebounding, just getting him going, being the person he is. That's our job. Once he does, man, it’s something like you’ve never seen.” 

Except, of course, now everyone has seen it.