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Cassius Winston’s brilliance on full display as Michigan State returns to the Sweet 16

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Starved for something to cheer for, the thousands of Minnesotans who made the trek a couple hundred miles south down Interstate 35 finally came to life. The Gophers they were there to cheer for, the program which was looking to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades, trimmed a 20-point lead against the Big Ten co-champs, the team that had destroyed them by 24 a month earlier, to nine points.

Seemingly everything other than the scoreboard seemed in Minnesota’s favor, and that looked suddenly in play.

“It got loud,” Winston said.

That’s when Tom Izzo told Winston to go to work.

“I told him he’s got to take over,” the Hall of Famer said, “and like a true All-American did.”

Instead of a superhero in a cape, the Spartans have a diminutive guard in a headband, though the results are largely the same.

Winston scored seven-straight points while recording two steals and a rebound in just over a minute to resecure the game for Michigan State and send the Spartans into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015’s Final Four run with 70-50 win Saturday against Minnesota at Wells Fargo Arena.

“You’ve got to make big plays. I’ve got to be who I am for this team. That’s my role for this team,” Winston said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all year. I don’t try to do too much. I don’t try to put the world on my shoulders, but I try to make plays to the best of my ability.”

The world may not have been on Winston’s shoulders, but the Spartans were on his back during that remarkable 82-second stretch that few players in the country could replicate.

An 8-0 run by Minnesota trimmed what had once been a 20-point Michigan State advantage to single digits, 40-31, with under 14 minutes to play in the game. After a Michigan State turnover, the Gophers had the opportunity to cut even further into their deficit, but Dupree Macbrayer’s jumper was off the mark, and Winston collected the rebound. On the ensuing possession as the shot clock dipped down, Winston connected on a step-back jumper.

He then picked off a pass from Gabe Kalscheuer, and hit another jumper on the other end. Next it was a deflection that lead to a fast break, where Winston pulled up in transition and buried a 3-pointer. Seven points in 57 seconds. A ballgame decided and a Sweet 16 trip to Washington, D.C. locked up in under a minute.

“That really killed us,” Gopher forward Amir Coffey said. “We had it going a little bit, and Cassius just came through for Michigan State and hit some clutch shots.”

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s what Winston has been doing for Michigan State all year. Whether it was a season-ending injury to Josh Langford or the  ailments that have sidelined Nick Ward or Kyle Aherns. Michigan State has time and again looked as though it faced a situation where its season could go sideways only to have Winston there to set the Spartans straight. The Big Ten player of the year has been tremendous, averaging 19.1 points and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 47.2 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from distance.

“That’s just typical Cassius. That’s just what he does,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Whenever we need him to score, whenever we need him to distribute, whenever we need him to just lead vocally he does whatever we need him to do, and that was just another day in the park.”

That scoring outburst was exactly what Michigan State needed to shutdown the Gophers, and it was about all Winston could give the Spartans. The Big Ten tournament champions have played five games in eight days, and Winston has looked worse for the wear. Those seven points were more than half of what he scored for the game, finishing with 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting (1 of 4 from 3) along with nine assists and four turnovers.

When Minnesota had its chance to truly threaten the Spartans, Winston found the strength, will, fortitude or maybe just a second wind enough to put a halt to it.

“He was hurting. He just was worn out. I said, ‘Well, here is the way it is, my man,’” Izzo said. “‘If you’re worn out you’ll get a lot of rest. If you’re not worn out you got another week or so and you’ll get a lot of rest any way. So how about we get after it and try to prolong this.’

“I just love the fact that he responded. He wouldn’t have responded like that two years ago if you ask me. He responded and I know how he felt. Yet I also know what he did. It was pretty impressive.”

It also put an end to the recent run of calamities for the Spartans in the NCAA tournament. There was Middle Tennessee State in 2016 followed by a nine-seed season that No. 1 Kansas put an end to in the Round of 32. Last year it was 11-seed Syracuse that sent Michigan State home that first weekend.

For a program that has prided itself on consistent Final Fours, a run like that is grating.

“Amazing, to finally get over the hump,” Winston said, “get to that second weekend.”

Nearly as amazing as how Winston took a few dozen seconds to win a game and keep the Spartans on track to perhaps in a week retrace the path all those dejected Gopher fans were making Saturday night, north to Minneapolis.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

 

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.