In a lob that landed in the hands of a soaring junior forward Xavier Tillman and eventually found an end to its flight at the rim of the basket MSU history was made. It was on that basket that senior guard Cassius Winston recorded his 817th career assist to put him as the all-time assist leader in both Michigan State and Big Ten history.
He did so in style and in front of his predecessor, former NBA point guard Mateen Cleaves, who watched from his seat across from the MSU bench. Cleaves, who played on MSU’s 2000 Championship Team, passed the baton off to Winston in a post-game ceremony and later praised Winston as one of the very few point guards he gets excited to watch.
“When Cassius signed here, it’s funny, I was laughing with one of my good friends … and I said, ‘That record is gone. He’s going to be the guy to bring that record down,’” Cleaves said. “Just the way he plays, the court vision, his finesse. He just always makes the right play and that’s what separates him from a lot of other different point guards across the country.”
Cleaves might have expected it, but coach Tom Izzo said he never did, however he always recognized Winston’s passing ability, ever since the Detroit native’s sophomore year of high school.
“I think he’s one of the best passers I’ve ever seen. I think he has the highest basketball IQ most guys have ever seen,” Izzo said. “I’m really proud of him … I think it’s just incredible what he’s done.”
Winston entered the 2019-2020 season with 714 career assists, in need of 103 to pass Cleaves for the record. Coming into Friday night’s game against Wisconsin, which MSU took 67-55, Winston had 813.
He started the night with a forward pass to freshman Gabe Brown in transition, that was one. Later Winston found Tillman out of nowhere under the basket, that was two.
The third came when MSU needed it most, a pass, to Malik Hall that put an end to a Michigan State scoring drought, tied him with Cleaves. And then came the typical Batman and Robin, Winston and Tillman play for the fourth, that secured it.
“I lofted it a little soft and he slammed it, it’s crazy that that’s my assist,” Winston said, while also reflecting on what he expected of himself coming to Michigan State four years ago. “I wanted to come in, I wanted to win games, I wanted to have a chance to go to the next level, it was as simple as that. All the other stuff, the assist record, all those things like that is beyond me, but it happened. I put my time in, I put my work in, I’m really blessed to even be in this situation.”
Despite holding down the record for 20 years, Cleaves was happy to pass the title off to Winston, continuously putting the focus on Winston, not himself.
“It’s a special day for him, it’s not about me. I had my fun 20 years ago,” Cleaves said. “This is all about him. He’s had a heck of a career and he will continue to make it special, I’m here to support him. It’s not about me.”
As for Winston, he described Cleaves as one of his biggest supporters and said that “it was huge,” for the record to stay within the Spartan family.
“A lot of times in these situations you probably want that (record) forever but it was never anything like that,” Winston said. “He was rooting for me the whole time, pushing for me to go get it and that’s all love right there.”
With plenty of basketball still left in the next months, Winston will continue to grow his assist number, hoping he can get some years out of the title like Cleaves did, as other players will now be chasing after him.
“It still hasn’t hit me yet, that’s crazy,” Winston said, reflecting on the idea of having other players chase a record he put down. “At first it’s a far out number, and then you kind of creep towards it and it just hits you like ‘Oh I got a chance to do that.' ... but like I said, it's a blessing just to be in this situation."