Junior forward Nick Ward, who Michigan State coach Tom Izzo admitted was the Spartans’ primary offensive option in the game plan against Louisiana-Monroe on Wednesday, went down early in the first half with a right-low ankle sprain.
Joshua Langford, a team captain junior guard whose 18 points keyed Sunday’s victory over Florida Gulf Coast, picked up his third foul less than one minute into the second half and was forced to sit.
The Spartans shot an incredibly bad 2-19 from behind the arc in the first half, and only led Louisiana-Monroe by six points at the break.
Enter Cassius Winston.
The junior point guard from Detroit, maligned by his head coach after a disappointing performance against Kansas in the Champions Classic last week, stepped up. His explosion of 14 points in a 2:45 span early in the first half put the game to bed.
“I had to — I wouldn't say put them on my back, but I just had to step up a little bit more,” Winston said. “I just tried to make some winning plays for us.”
It started with a beautiful dribble drive to free himself for an and-one opportunity. He helped dissect a 3-2 zone defense from Louisiana-Monroe that ended with a Kenny Goins dunk. Then came the barrage from beyond the arc.
Winston swished three straight three pointers, bringing the tepid Breslin Center crowd to its feet.
“When he’s hot, we're gonna keep hitting him until he shows that he goes back cold,” sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said. “As soon as he hit like two, then he had one off the inbound, I was like, ‘yeah, we’re just gonna keep going to him.'”
Izzo was asked if the absences of Ward and Langford were a contributing factor to Winston’s performance.
“I hope so. That’s a good thing for Cassius, to know he’s gotta take over,” Izzo said. “I thought he forced one shot, which a guy like that, that’s pretty good. I thought he played within himself, he made some good passes, he shot the three. He looked like he wanted to score … Cassius did what great players gotta do. They gotta get the ball rolling, and he got it rolling.”
These are the games when Winston has to make those kinds of plays. Ward won’t always be out, as Izzo said postgame that it was a mild low ankle sprain, but even if he has other scorers on the court, Winston must call his own number at times.
“That’s kind of my role on the team,” Winston said. I just make plays, whatever we gotta do to win, I figure out a way to do it. Take my spots, knock down my shots, that’s my job for this team.”
These games early in the season are all-lose, no-win for a team that is not as supremely talented as last season’s. The gains will be incremental, like Wednesday night for example. Not having Ward forced Izzo to give freshmen big men Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier extended looks, which will theoretically pay dividends down the road.
But attitude changes can help quite a bit. When Winston hunts his own shot, as he did tonight, and as he did against Connecticut in the PK80 in Portland last season, the team is more successful. That game was played without a hobbled Miles Bridges, who scored only six points. Winston was masterful that night, scoring 28 on 12-for-15 shooting.
“Cassius is capable of that a lot, and when he plays pretty good defense, he ran the break pretty well,” Izzo said.
When he is aggressively scoring, it opens up everything else. He plays with a swagger defensively, as evidenced by his four steals without committing a foul. He distributes more pointedly, playing 31 minutes as the primary ball handler without committing a turnover.
Winston is a four-year guy. He doesn’t possess the size or the defensive aptitude to be a lottery pick, but his skill set is ideal for Tom Izzo’s offense and to beat most college defenses. Winston didn’t even shoot particularly efficiently Wednesday night, shooting 3-10 from behind the line. But when he is attacking, and shooting, everything else goes up a notch, too. Including his focus.
“It felt great,” Winston said about his first three-pointer against Louisiana-Monroe dropping. “You saw the first half, right? It felt good for just a shot to go in.”
When he feels good, he plays good. When he plays good, as he did in the second half Wednesday night, the Spartans are a handful.