MINNEAPOLIS — While tears ran down the faces of Michigan State players in the locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium, Cassius Winston did what he did all year.
He stayed calm.
The season was over. There wasn’t anything that could be done about a 61-51 loss to the Red Raiders in the NCAA Tournament semifinals. The pain of not fulfilling the propechy of a national championship still cut deep. But when he spoke before the team, Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, consensus All-American and team captain who earned the title in the middle of the season, told his team to learn from its mistakes, and to grow from it.
Tom Izzo, MSU’s Hall of Fame coach, was impressed.
“Cassius Winston did the best job of anybody after the game,” Izzo said. “He was a man. He was a leader. Rallied everybody in that room.”
Winston’s collective nature fit the M.O. teammates, coaches, competitors, media and whomever else labeled the 6-foot-1 junior as a level-headed leader.
Even when time was running out for MSU in the second half, Winston helped whittle a 13-point Tech lead at the midway point of the period to a 52-51 Red Raiders lead with 2:54 to play.
That’s where MSU needed a bucket most. And Winston was the guy to seemingly answer when the call beckoned.
After all, Winston facilitated a 13-0 run against top-seeded Duke in the Elite Eight. He also scored seven consecutive points to pull away against Minnesota. Winston took over in multiple games against Michigan.
So after a jumper from Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver — the Big 12 Player of the Year — to give the Red Raiders a 54-51 lead with 2:29 left, Winston drove the ball down the court coming out of a timeout. A chance perhaps no better to take command.
But Winston, the cool, collected point guard, passed the ball off and set a screen. He wasn’t able to get set and his defender, Davide Moretti, drew an offensive foul.
Winston threw his hands up and wore a befuddled grimace — the only instance of MSU’s postseason in which he seemed rattled. Through eight postseason games, Winston averaged 18.1 pointsand 6.9 assists in 34.8 minutes.
His moment never came, and neither did MSU’s. The Spartans were puzzled by Tech’s defense all night and shot a season-worst 31.9 percent from the floor.
Winston led MSU with 16 points and shot 4-for-16 from the field. He was held to a season-low two assists, one fewer than his previous worst met twice during the regular season. Winston also accounted for four of MSU’s 11 turnovers, a game-high.
“That was the whole game plan, getting back and stopping the rim run or stopping (Winston) on fast break because you know how deadly he is,” Texas Tech guard Kyler Edwards said.
Winston said Texas Tech’s defense was the toughest he faced. The Red Raiders successfully executed their game plan of forcing Winston to the baseline before passing to the corner and taking rushed shots.
And the Spartans played right into it.
“They switched really well, made it hard to get into the post and things like that,” Winston said. “Kept you on the sidelines. Their defense is really, really good, forced you into some tough situations to make plays.”
By not coming away with a win Saturday, the Spartans were placed out of national championship contention. In that regards, Winston won’t join Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Mateen Cleaves as MSU point guards to win a national title.
But based off of Izzo’s description of Winston’s postgame speech, Winston carried the demeanor of the aforementioned program all-timers.
“He handled it like a Magic, like a Mateen, like the guys that made it,” Izzo said.
And like Johnson and Cleaves, Winston faces the decision of forgoing the rest of his eligibility and trying his luck in the NBA. Johnson declared for the draft after his sophomore season and winning the ‘79 championship. Cleaves opted to come back after MSU’s 1999 loss in the Final Four and led Izzo to his first national title.
Winston may never have higher draft stock. But he may also be best suited to improve his game another season at the college level.
“Being good enough to be great is one thing, being good enough to be an NBA player is another,” Izzo said. “If we think somebody is, we’ll advise them of that.”
Izzo said he never imagined Winston filling into a leadership role the way Winston has. And whatever Winston decides, it’ll most likely be the right decision for all parties involved.
Because he stays calm.
“He has a different personality than most people,” Izzo said. “But as strange as it all seems, and as much as I probably said, him and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum as far as our demeanor and everything else, I think I’ve come a little bit his way and he’s come a lot my way.
“And I got a feeling that this offseason, and next year, he’s going to take his game to a whole other level.”