The Final Four is set. USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson looks toward Saturday’s games featuring Auburn vs. Virginia and Texas Tech vs. Michigan State.
USA TODAY Sports
WASHINGTON — The go-to line about Cassius Winston — the one his high-school coach used to describe him even before he arrived at Michigan State — is that he has an old man’s game.
The 6-foot-1 point guard is not particularly quick, nor uniquely athletic. He prefers layups to dunks. His offensive style is a combination of simple starts, stops, stepback jumpers and awkardly-timed floaters that somehow find net.
“People want to make the joke (that he’s) that guy at the YMCA or something,” backup point guard Foster Loyer said.
But what Winston does as well as perhaps any point guard is the country is manipulate the pace of the game. And that, as much as anything else, is why the Spartans now find themselves in their first Final Four since 2015, preparing to face Texas Tech in Minneapolis on Saturday night.
Winston, a junior from Detroit, was named the most outstanding player in the East Regional after recording 20 points, 10 assists, four steals and just one turnover in Michigan State’s Elite Eight win over Duke on Sunday. But his most influential moments came in between all of that — possession-by-possession decisions about when to attack or slow down.
“It just took a while to learn the pace of the game, things you can control, things you can’t control,” Winston explained after the Spartans’ 68-67 win Sunday. “I’ve just been getting better as I get older.”
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Part of Winston’s brilliance is his ability to keep defenders off balance in the lane with his own changes of speed on offense. Teammates marvel at his ability to stop and start while remaining in control. But it’s about dictating pace on a macro level, too.
On Sunday, for example, Winston kept the Spartans from scrambling after Duke went on a 12-0 run in the first half, producing a pair of layups out of half-court sets. Then, in the second-half, he halted a fast break to set up an acrobatic layup by Matt McQuaid before later sprinting ahead to assist on a Xavier Tillman dunk.
“He is as good a player as we’ve played against,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s able to run what Tom (Izzo) is thinking in real time and feel the game, and that really is one of the biggest gifts a player can give a coach.”
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Michigan State associate head coach Dane Fife said the nuances and strategy of pace are things Winston has really come to understand in his junior season. At University of Detroit Jesuit High School, he was the Mr. Basketball award-winner on a state championship team and had tremendous freedom to play at his own speed. Then he joined the Spartans, and that changed.
“There’s a certain element that he struggled to grasp,” Fife said, “and that’s playing at his pace (versus) playing for Michigan State in the Big Ten. There’s a big difference.”
Three years later, though, Winston is the team’s maestro. Interestingly, Fife said the Spartans rarely run plays that are designed for him to get a shot, even though he averages 18.9 points and more than 13 field-goal attempts per game. Instead, they try to give him a sliver of space or an advantageous angle, and let him make the decision to push, pull up or pass.
“It’s not like he’s lightning quick, blowing by people,” Loyer added. “But he just does such a great job of being under control, changing speeds. … He might be going slow, slow, but then when he wants to go fast, he’s by you.”
Michigan State has now made 10 trips to the Final Four, including eight under Izzo, and almost all of them have come in large part due to point guard play. Kalin Lucas led the Spartans to back-to-back Final Fours in 2009 and 2010. Mateen Cleaves and Magic Johnson starred on the program’s two national title teams in 2000 and 1979. Now, Winston is hoping to add himself to that list.
Not bad for a guy who supposedly plays like an old man, eh?
“I’ll take the old man’s game any day of the week the way he’s playing,” freshman Aaron Henry said with a smile. “I’m glad I’m with that old man.”