As No. 3 Michigan State men's basketball (1-1) prepares for its first true road opponent in No. 12 Seton Hall (2-0), the game defers its priority in the focus of the Spartans as they move forward following the Saturday death of Zachary Winston, senior point guard Cassius Winston’s younger brother.
“The most difficult part is to get guys to practice and focus in right now,” coach Tom Izzo said following Tuesday’s practice. “It's been hard. It's been hard for the coaches. It's been hard for the players and yet I thought today, Cassius was better today. Yesterday was a tough day for him. And we're just going to keep on trucking.”
Late Saturday night, Zachary Winston, a sophomore guard at Division III Albion College, was hit by an Amtrak train near the Albion campus. Police believe he stepped in front of the train intentionally.
Cassius Winston appeared in Sunday’s emotional victory over Binghamton, scoring 17 points and dishing 11 assists, and is expected to play Thursday. Izzo said the Detroit native may be using the game as his own way of coping.
“I think the first night, it did,” Izzo said when asked if basketball was helping Winston's grieving process. “Yesterday, the court didn't make much difference. It's just everybody's going to go through some different things as they deal with this.
"I will say this, he's been more communicative, and it's made it easier to talk to him about things. He came in today, and we sat down for a half-hour and just talked. And that's what I gotta do a lot right now is talk to my guys. ... Trying to get everybody in the right frame of mind.”
While the Spartans will be tested on the court by the Pirates on Thursday, they likely will not face a tougher trial all season than the one they confront currently.
“It's maybe learning to appreciate and learning how fragile things are,” Izzo said. “But you can turn that into basketball too, because basketball is fragile, too. If you're not focused in, you're not going to play as well, and we're going to learn to focus in through some tough times. We're learning to deal with distractions, no matter if they're positive or negative.”
Sophomore forward Marcus Bingham was one of the main catalysts for the team’s gaining perspective as his message to the team upon hearing the news of Zachary's death was simple: “Everybody in this room, go to your room, call your family members and tell them you love them."
Bingham cited similar experiences as the driving force behind the message.
"Just going through the same stuff," he said. “Being in that situation Cassius is in, there were a lot of deaths in the family and losing my granddad, I was down. My mom told me just to try to help others and not have them feeling the same way.”
The hardship that follows a death in the family will linger for an uncertain amount of time as life goes on, as Izzo acknowledged Sunday.
“The hardest part of life that I'm learning is, it never stops,” Izzo said. “It just keeps going.”
Bingham said the team will attempt to follow suit and continue to support their grieving leader, who was not made available to the media following Tuesday's practice.
“Everybody, we're really trying to rally around (Cassius) and get it back going, just trying to let him know that (Zachary) is always here," Bingham said. "He's always in all our hearts, so just trying to keep going.”
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