DETROIT – Things were not going well for Cassius Winston.
The Detroit native playing in front of his friends and family was scoreless nearly halfway through the second half of Michigan State’s matchup with Oakland, and the Golden Grizzlies’ Kendrick Nunn was stealing the show, having scored 27 of his 32 points through the first 28 minutes of play.
A hard foul on Miles Bridges from Oakland’s Chris Palombizio was clean, but Bridges took exception, and when you piss off the superstar of the No. 2 team in the nation, chances are you’ll end up paying for it.
Enter Winston, who to that point in the game had six turnovers. A layup and three-pointer later, and Michigan State regained a lead they would not relinquish.
“I got a couple looks and I shot them with confidence,” Winston said postgame. “That’s what sparked it off. He [coach Tom Izzo]challenged me a little bit, and I don’t know, I was mad at him, mad at myself and everything so it brought that aggressiveness out of me.”
Up until that hard foul on Bridges, Michigan State did feel like a team that was sleepwalking through what on paper was supposed to be another mid-major win for the Spartans. Greg Kampe’s best Oakland team in years pushed them for a long stretch. However, OU found out something that UConn and Rutgers had already found out earlier in the season: MSU’s killer instinct doesn’t always come from its big-name stars of Bridges or Jaren Jackson.
“I think I’ve been too soft on him,” Izzo said of Winston following the game. “When I got him mad, he played a lot better. He went in with a vengeance in that last ten minutes, he told me what he was going to do on the bench and went out and did it.”
It was maybe an unexpected move to rely on Winston for points in the key stretch of the game where the lead changed hands a couple of times, but it ended up as one that worked out brilliantly for Izzo and MSU. Championship teams have a guy that can single-handedly kickstart an offense. If one is to poke holes in MSU’s offense through 11 games, it is in the fact that a team with as many balanced scorers as the Spartans have, not having a clear-cut top dog may hurt down the stretch of a close NCAA tournament game.
That said, Izzo may be onto something with Winston’s ability to go on solo scoring runs. His performance in the PK80 semifinal against UConn was the first sign fans had seen of the sophomore guard’s ability to take over in the late-game, and it may come in handy during a tough Big Ten road game at, say, Purdue or Minnesota. In this game, he scored MSU’s last 14 points to finish with a team-high 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting.
“We set up two plays in a row to go to him after he hadn’t done anything,” Izzo said of that crucial two-minute stretch. “And he nailed two threes, he did the same thing at Rutgers where he hit two threes.”
The added benefit of Winston’s extremely hot start to the season behind the three-point arc (Winston came into Saturday shooting 61 percent from three) gives the Spartan offense another dimension that may put it over the top. With the holiday season approaching, what do you get the team that seemingly has everything? In Winston, they now have a point guard who can make plays on the offensive end down the stretch and change the defensive focus of the opposing team. When you have to worry about Ward and Jackson down low and the two wings on the perimeter, forgetting Winston plays directly into Izzo and MSU’s hands.
From that sequence in the middle of the second half on, it was the Winston show, with guest star Kenny Goins serving as a facilitator in the middle of Oakland’s multiple zone looks. Goins finished with seven assists in a season-high 20 minutes to lead the team, and played the most effective basketball of his young season.
With the number of solid players on MSU’s bench, it is a bit of a shame that players such as Ben Carter or Goins don’t get longer looks in games, at least thus far. The next couple of weeks feature about zero teams that have major chances at beating MSU on their home court, and maybe there is a chance for someone like Carter to step up and take their chance at more minutes.
However, the rest of the rotation is beginning to take shape. Winston led the team with 34 minutes, but there were no other Spartans above 30 minutes against Oakland. Part of it was a quiet game from Bridges, who finished just 3-10 shooting and had four fouls in an 11-point effort, but Matt McQuaid chipped in with a pair of threes in 14 minutes and Tum Tum Nairn changed the flow of the game once Izzo matched him up with Nunn.
If Michigan State is in the middle of a battle in the second round of the NCAA tournament and finds a way to pull ahead, they’ll have this game to thank. A neutral-site matchup at a venue that could potentially host the Spartans in the tournament may serve as a reminder to MSU to not take opponents lightly. Granted, this Oakland team could play quite a few teams in the country very close, and should OU make the tournament, they’re likely to be underseeded, but this game will be an excellent teacher to the Spartans come March.
If it teaches them anything, it could be that Cassius Winston is who needs the ball in crunch time. Regardless of who it is, the earlier MSU finds their go-to guy, the better.