Balance helps Spartans advance to Sweet Sixteen
DES MOINES, Iowa — In the locker room after the second-seeded Michigan State Spartans defeated Minnesota 70-50 in the second round of the NCAA tournament to reach the Sweet Sixteen, the debate was raging between freshman forward Marcus Bingham Jr. and freshman guard Gabe Brown.
“There’s no way X scored more than Cassius,” Bingham said.
“Wanna bet?” Brown said.
The stat sheet was produced by a graduate assistant, who informed them that sophomore forward Xavier Tillman did in fact lead the Spartans with 14 points, and junior point guard Cassius Winston scored 13 — one less.
“Bro, I told you,” Brown said.
Tillman’s effort marked just the third time in the last ten games that Winston did not lead MSU in points.
Winston and Tillman were two of six Spartans to score nine or more — freshman forward Aaron Henry, senior forward Kenny Goins, senior guard Matt McQuaid and junior forward Nick Ward all scored nine.
“Total team effort, everyone was locked in,” Tillman said.
It was a different way to win for MSU, which of late has relied on transcendent individual performances, mostly from Winston — the Big Ten Player of the Year — but also from McQuaid, whose 27 points almost single-handedly won the Big Ten tournament championship game over Michigan.
The strength and depth of the team was on full display Saturday, as the Spartans shot 57.1 percent from the floor and 40 percent from behind the three-point line.
“It’s a consistent effort of many players scoring the ball,” Henry said. “It just shows how deep we are, how versatile we are as a team, and how our chemistry is just well-connected. We all know where are spots are and what we’re gonna do.”
Junior guard Joshua Langford, out for the season with a stress injury in his left foot, attributed his team’s strong offensive play across the board to the adversity they’ve faced this season. At various times this season, five players have missed time with injuries.
“We’ve been through so many things, so when you go through things with people, it almost helps you get closer with those guys,” Langford said. “I think that’s what you’re seeing now.”
Henry said there is a concerted effort on the team to spread the ball around, to help keep everyone engaged.
“Sometimes, it’s just a matter of who’s hot or a matter of who needs to get going,” he said. “Just to keep them involved in the game. Because, you know, scoring can keep you in the game.”
Goins mentioned the players at the end of the bench scoring in the closing moments as proof that everyone eats. Bingham, as well as freshman forward Thomas Kithier and redshirt freshman walk-on guard Jack Hoiberg, all scored in the final two minutes.
“We really got a great team, top to bottom,” Goins said. “You see at the end, we got guys scoring with 30 seconds left. No matter who you put in, they got talent out here. We got enough trust to put everyone in spots to score, we’re not selfish by any means.”