Cassius Winston slipped from the national consciousness. After going 4 of 14 in a loss to Duke at the Breslin Center to start December, the Michigan State guard, seemingly, moved to the fringe of the national player of the year conversation that just a month earlier he had him at its center.
It was a tough performance on a big stage, and one that weighs heavily early in the season. Winston, though, has quietly bounced back over the last month. He scored at least 21 points in four of the next five games, averaging six assists per game over that stretch. The Spartans won each one of those games, plus another against Western Michigan which he sat out with a minor injury.
Maybe it was because the competition topped out against the likes of Rutgers and Illinois during that stretch that there was little notice of the man who was once the consensus pick for national player of the year dominating. Performances without the right stage are really just dress rehearsals. Being great when few are watching just doesn’t resonate.
Well, with the spotlight squarely on Winston and the Spartans on Sunday, both starred.
Winston scored a career-high 32 points while dishing out nine assists, and No. 14 Michigan State dominated play Sunday in defeating rival and 12th-ranked Michigan 87-69 at the Breslin Center in what will surely reassert both the senior guard and the Spartans in their spots as among the country’s best.
How could anyone ever even forgotten that’s where they belong?
Winston was truly brilliant, orchestrating the Spartan attack all day long with precision. He was 11 of 19 from the floor, including 2 of 3 from deep, in 38 minutes. Whenever a big play was there to be made or a moment was there to seize, Winston stepped forward and delivered.
It was a sight to behold, especially knowing how difficult these last two months must have been for Winston and his family following his brother’s death in November. Winston returned to Michigan State looking for a triumphant final season on the court, but instead he’s going through what has to be one of the most trying periods of his life. That, at times, has to make basketball feel awfully small by comparison.
So to see Winston smiling, balling and being an absolute wizard on the court is not only great basketball entertainment, but also something more. It was, simply, joyful.
Winston is what drives the Spartans, but he wasn’t alone Sunday in starring. Xavier Tillman had 20 points and 11 rebounds to give Michigan State that inside-outside punch that’s so hard to contend with. No other Spartan scored more than eight points, but when Winston and Tillman have it going like that, the rest of the team really just has to get out of the way and play defense.
Which is what they did.
Michigan shot 36.2 percent overall and 21.7 percent on 23 attempts from 3 as they played from behind the entire game.
The Wolverines, though, were without the services of junior Isaiah Livers, who missed a second-straight game with a groin injury. The 6-foot-7 wing is averaging 13.6 points per game while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range.
His absence creates a significant shift in what Michigan can do as it’s not only the fact that he’s so deadly from distance, but that his shooting forces defenses to account for him religiously on the perimeter, creating space for Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and the rest of the Wolverines to operate.
Simpson had 14 points (on 18 shots) and eight assists while Teske had 15 points and five boards.
Since captivating the college basketball world with their run through the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Wolverines are 3-4, but with losses Louisville, Illinois, Oregon and Michigan State. All but Oregon (which went to OT) were away from Ann Arbor. Michigan might not be the team we thought they were leaving the Bahamas, at least not yet, but I’m not sure they’re far off. Especially once Livers comes back.
The story is certainly the Spartans and Winston. After fading from the national discussion for the last month, both loudly spoke up Sunday, reminding us they hadn’t really gone anywhere.