The share of the Big Ten regular season championship title Michigan State men's basketball clinched Sunday afternoon was sweeter than the ones before for senior guard Cassius Winston.
Sweeter not because it was his senior day, but because it was a title this team didn't always see in their grasp.
“This year there was a moment when we (didn't) really know if we were going to win the championship," Winston said. "We were just trying to finish the year off strong, finish the Big Ten season out strong and we took care of our end and things started happening in our favor. Then we had a chance to win the championship and we took advantage of it."
The uncertainty was a theme amongst the players' reactions to MSU's third consecutive Big Ten regular season title. For junior forward Xavier Tillman the uncertainty factor was the determining difference that separated this title from the ones earned in his past two seasons.
“I think every other year was a little bit different because throughout the whole season I kind of knew we have a good chance of winning," Tillman said. "But this year there was a point where I was like ‘We’re probably not going to win, we’re three games out from Maryland, we‘re probably not going to win it.' ... But to be able to do the things that we did this year and the comeback is kind of crazy.”
And then comes the emotional factor. MSU coach Tom Izzo said the impact of mental fatigue was one of the biggest lessons he took away from this season as the 2020 Spartan squad endured circumstances he had never seen in his 25-year head coaching tenure.
“It’s not been easy, most difficult year I’ve had," Izzo said, also naming the year the most emotional he had ever gone through. "But probably when it’s all said and done the most rewarding year I’ve had for me as a coach, for me as a father, for me as a friend."
There were devastations like the death of Cassius Winston's brother Zachary.
There were frustrations like the unexpected benching of senior guard Joshua Langford due to injury, or the denied appeal of transfer Joey Hauser. Nonetheless, a midseason stint of three straight losses that named the Spartans just the second preseason No. 1 team to be knocked from the Associated Press Poll later in the season put players on edge.
"There were times I didn't know if we had enough left in us, I really didn't," Izzo said. "We were so young and that's another adjustment I had to make. We started having more meetings and I kept telling my staff, 'You don't understand, we've never played this many freshmen.'"
The younger lineup went down as yet another unexpected turn in the Spartans' season. But the freshman have matured, specifically when it comes to guard Rocket Watts who put down 19 points with five rebounds in the game that secured his first Big Ten Title.
But with all the cards stacked against them, as Winston put it, the Spartans pulled it together to raise another banner for the third straight season Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve been lucky, when you’ve got (Mateen) Cleaves and Winston as your two point guards on teams that win three in a row, the coach doesn’t have to do much work," Izzo said. “ ... It’s not easy to win one but what’s really difficult is to sustain some kind of excellence at championship level play and it's an honor to win it with Maryland and Wisconsin. …The league is so good you probably should have to share the championship, there’s so many good teams but to win three of them back to back to back is special because there's pressure on you, everybody is hunting you.”
The Spartans secured a two-seed entering the Big Ten tournament. They will play their first game in Indianapolis on March 13 against either tenth-seeded Purdue or seventh-seeded Ohio State.