In front of the annual Alumni Izzone crowd, No. 14 Michigan State (11-3, 3-0 B1G) surged past Illinois (9-5, 1-2 B1G) Thursday night at the Breslin Center 76-56 thanks in large part to the heroics of senior point guard Cassius Winston.
The Detroit native, nursing a sore left knee that held him out of MSU’s Sunday night win over Western Michigan, looked the part of the Big Ten Player of the Year he was a season ago, totaling 21 points and six assists.
"I can't say enough about Cassius," coach Tom Izzo said.
Izzo said he picked Winston up to take him to the team hotel Wednesday night and asked how he was doing.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood said that after NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, he believes Winston to be the second-best point guard to play for MSU.
"I don't know about that one," Winston said. "Magic is number one by far. He's in his own different lane. But to even be considered in that category is just a blessing. All the hard work and all the time I've spent, for it to show in a way like that, that's huge."
A nip-and-tuck game broke open in the early stages of the second half, as the shooting from Winston and sophomore guard Gabe Brown keyed a 15-3 Spartan run. Brown punctuated the run with a three-pointer off a Winston dish with 12:55 remaining that put MSU up 56-38, its largest lead of the game to that point.
"That's just giving us more energy," Brown said. "The fans coming along with us, the team, the coaches, everybody coming along with us, that's just making it more fun to be out there with your brothers."
The Spartans smothered Illinois’ shooting, holding the Fighting Illini to just 3-28 from beyond the three-point line.
For a time, it looked as though Illini sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu would match his performance from a season ago, when he led the Illini to a 79-74 win over then-No. 9 MSU in Champaign, Illinois with 24 points. He was magnificent in the first half Thursday night, scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds in keeping the inefficient Illini in the game, which they trailed just 36-30 at the break.
The Chicago native totaled just five points after the break on 2-of-7 shooting.
Junior forward Xavier Tillman played perhaps his best all-around game of the season, scoring 19 points while adding seven rebounds and six assists in addition to playing excellent defense.
Tillman, as well as sophomore bigs Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier, contained Illinois’ interior presence. The Illini start two traditional big men in 7-foot, 290-pound freshman center Kofi Cockburn and 6-foot-9, 235-pound sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who came in averaging more than 24 points per game combined, with Cockburn recently being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
The two were held to just 11 points on 5-of-22 shooting as Tillman and Bingham Jr. combined for nine blocks.
When asked what he could attribute the struggles of Cockburn and Bezhanishvili to, Underwood had a one-word answer.
With their sixth straight win in the books, the Spartans turn their attention to the rival No. 12 Michigan Wolverines (10-3, 1-1 B1G), who enter Breslin Center on Sunday afternoon (1:30 p.m./CBS). This will mark the first matchup between longtime Izzo and first-year Michigan coach Juwan Howard, a member of Michigan’s famed “Fab Five” between 1991-94.