Cassius Winston has struggled in this rivalry throughout his career. In his first four meetings against the Wolverines, the junior point guard posted a record of 1-3.
Two of those losses, which came last season, were extremely deflating for the program. Arguably the most talented team Tom Izzo had ever assembled failed to deliver on their home court in the regular season and in Madison Square Garden in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal.
That is not to say that the 0-2 showing last season rests entirely upon Winston, but the Spartans’ best playmaker was routinely on the wrong end of the media and fans’ scrutiny, underperforming against Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson, especially on the defensive end.
This time was different. His 40 minutes led his team to a 77-70 road victory at Crisler Center, a feat the program hasn’t accomplished since 2016.
“We almost like it better," Winston said. “Us playing on the road, us against the world, road dogs, we stick together. It’s really us against the world, they make runs, we just find a way and stick together.”
The young player that was at times considered a liability defensively grew into his role – one as critical as any for an Izzo-coached team. Multiple Detroit floor generals have impacted crucial moments at Crisler Center, and tonight, Winston morphed into just that: Izzo’s crutch – the decisive Detroit guard.
“It's been a process here. If everybody would just learn there’s a process in life, I think we’d be better off ... everybody wants to avoid the process,” Izzo said. “He had the process, he had the tough freshman year, very good sophomore year. Now, he's having, so far, a great junior year.”
On a night where he failed to record points until bringing MSU to a 18-17 lead, Winston remained impactful from the opening tip. He did so namely by hesitating to beat Michigan’s aggressive trapping on ball screens to find sophomore forward Xavier Tillman for three high-percentage finishes in the first half.
“When it was all said and done, the guy that's been scrutinized the most by me and you, Cassius Winston, was unbelievable,” Izzo said. “We kept the ball in his hands and it didn't mean he was getting shots and that's what's makes a guy great. He made other players better. He made some great passes inside, made some great passes outside, played defense the way we wanted it.”
The scoring in the first half was spread among the Spartans’ veterans largely because of Winston. As expected by none, redshirt senior Kenny Goins pioneered MSU’s offensive effort in the first 20 minutes, making three-of-four three-pointers en route to 71 percent shooting.
Winston facilitated to the former walk-on as well as senior guard Matt McQuaid, who netted two baskets from beyond the arc in the opening half.
The junior known for his facilitating did what has entered him into the Naismith conversation this season in the latter 20 minutes, scoring 19 points to finish with 27. Simply put, Cassius Winston took over the contest in the second half, commanding the victory as he began to beat the Wolverine defense with multiple crafty floaters and timely assists.
“He just gets into these little areas and then he's got that floater game that very few players have,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of Winston. “It is an art to be able to go full speed, stop, float it up and get to go in. He's one of the best I've ever seen at it and you have to be all over him.”
As the game neared a close after Winston led MSU to a comfortable lead into crunch time, the Spartans’ playmaker drew a foul with 2:07 left to play. Stumbling into the visitors’ bench as result of the contact, Winston met the embrace of Izzo before going to the line.
As the 24-year head coach quite literally rested his weight upon his guard’s shoulders in that moment, it became evident that Izzo rested figuratively upon on his shoulders throughout the game and will continue to do so moving forward.
“About a week ago when Nick went down, I had a team meeting,” Izzo said. “I named Cassius a captain. It was a coach's decision. It just felt like this is his time to step forward and I told him what responsibilities he had. And tonight I used those exact words. ‘Put us on your shoulders without monopolizing the game and the ball.’ … And I'd say that Cassius took that giant step in the right direction. I'm really proud of what he's done.”