Cassius Winston’s case for College Player of the Year

Julian Mitchell, Men's Basketball Beat Reporter

If there was any doubt as to who the Big Ten Player of the Year is, I think we can all agree that Cassius Winston answered that this past weekend.

Although the votes are not in yet and there are still three games to go, Winston has cemented himself as the Big Ten Player of the Year by decimating in-state rival Michigan to the tune of 27 points and eight assists on 7-of-13 shooting at the Crisler Center on Sunday.

“Our ball-screen defense has been terrific all year, Cassius Winston was terrific. He destroyed our ball screen defense, destroyed it,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said after Sunday’s game. “So, I like to give other teams credit, he was absolutely tremendous. We’ve had a lot of point guards come into this building, I’ve coached some great ones that was as good a performance as you’re going to see.”

With his play, Winston silenced the doubters, the ones that said he wouldn’t get past Michigan guard Zavier Simpson and the ones that didn’t have him etched in as Big Ten Player of the Year. However, now that he has put that question to rest, we now have to ask ourselves another. The question of whether he should be Naismith College Player of the Year.

Winston has been tremendous all season, averaging 19.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range. Not to mention, he’s doing all of that while playing 33.2 minutes per game.

He’s the only player in Division I to average at least 18 points, seven assists and shoot 43 percent from 3-point land. Winston is also one of 18 players, since 1992-93, in Division I to average at least 18 points and seven assists, a list that also includes Murray State’s Ja Morant and Colbey Ross of Pepperdine, two current players.

Winston has gotten the job done, both in scoring and passing. He is one of the more efficient shooters in the country, with a true shooting percentage of 61 percent and an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent.

He’s also one of the best passers in the nation, averaging 7.4 assists this season, good for No. 1 in the Big Ten and No. 4 in the nation. For the Spartans, Winston assists on an astounding 43.4 percent of made baskets, the highest mark on his team and the third highest in the country according to Fox Sports.

While his season stats alone should be enough to put him in contention, it’s what Winston has done in the past three games without guard Joshua Langford and forward Nick Ward that has vaulted him into the discussion.

By losing Langford and Ward, Michigan State is playing without 30 points per game as each player averages 15. However, due to the play of Winston, the Spartans have not missed a beat.

“What impressed me most about him (Winston) was he didn’t try to take the game over and dribble it to death and make plays for himself, he tried to take the game over and make other people better,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said at his weekly press conference. “And that’s a hell of a quality to have, in a big game when there was pressure on him and there will be again, but he’s a junior, he’s a great player that’s kind of why he came here and that’s what he should be.”

In the past three games, the junior has averaged 22.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and eight assists per game. According to analytics site Barttovick, Winston has logged usage rates of 37.9, 35.1 and 34.7 in those three games. The Spartans have relied on Winston to be both the hot hand and passer, as evident by his usage rate, which provides an estimate of the percentage of plays used by a player.

Winston’s play has also elevated his teammates, with Matt McQuaid, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins benefiting from his high level of play. A lot of their open looks come off plays from Winston, whether it’s a pick and pop 3-pointer for Goins ,or an easy bucket after rolling to the rim for Tillman.

Winston has been great this year, but he’s taken the next step with Michigan State shorthanded. College Player of the Year candidates Zion Williamson of Duke and Marquette’s Markus Howard just haven’t had to deal with the adversity and injuries that Winston has.

Williamson plays with two other potential NBA lottery picks in R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, while also getting passes from talented guard Tre Jones. Howard is a scoring machine at 25 points per game, but has had help from two other teammates who average in double figures. Without Langford and Ward, the next highest scorer for Michigan State is guard Matt McQuaid at 9 points per game.

Not only has Winston had to work with less, but he has done it in arguably the best conference in college basketball. The Big Ten is currently projected to have eight teams compete in the NCAA Tournament, tied with the ACC atop college basketball.

Head Coach Tom Izzo’s floor general just led the team to an away win over then No. 7 Michigan. Compare that to player of the year candidate Ja Morant at Murray State, who plays in the Ohio Valley Conference and on a team not even ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

Winston has earned himself a seat at the table this season by playing some of the best basketball in the country. If he can keep this up for the remainder of the regular season and into the tournament, without Langford for the season and Ward for the foreseeable future, he just might see his name etched on the Player of the Year trophy at the end of the season.