Cassius Winston is already in elite company.
The crafty point guard is among the very few to win Big Ten player of the year honors and earn a spot on The Associated Press All-America team. And if he can help the Spartans win two more games, he will join Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves as the school’s national championship-winning point guards, too.
“There’s room at the table for Cassius and I’ll even pull the chair out for him personally,” Cleaves told the AP on Wednesday, exactly 19 years after he led Michigan State to its second national title. “I’m excited for him and I think he deserves it. Having won it, I know how it feels and it gets even better as you get older. No matter what, no one can take that away from you and you’re a staple in college basketball for the rest of your life.”
The second-seeded Spartans will play third-seeded Texas Tech on Saturday night in the Final Four, hoping to advance and face either Virginia or Auburn in the title game.
Johnson, a Hall of Famer, lifted the Spartans to a national championship in 1979 and Cleaves did in 2000. Winston acknowledged it would mean a lot to him to join the duo in Michigan State lore.
“Those are the greats, definitely, got to be top two,” he said. “So just to be up there with those guys, to get a national championship for this program, that’s something you can’t replace.”
The Spartans went into the season needing to replace Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson after they entered the NBA draft as underclassmen. Michigan State also bid farewell to a trio of role-playing seniors.
Then they lost Joshua Langford in December to a season-ending ankle injury, Nick Ward for a stretch of games late in the season with a broken hand and Kyle Ahrens was in and out of the lineup with a back injury before hurting his left ankle in the Big Ten Tournament.
Coach Tom Izzo, his staff and the team overcame the setbacks. Losing Winston would likely have proven impossible.
Winston is averaging 37.5 minutes during the NCAA Tournament. He was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region after averaging 19 points and 7.8 assists, including a 20-point, 10-assist performance in a win over top-seeded Duke . He was the only Division I basketball player this season to average 18 or more points per game, at least seven assists and shoot at least 40% from the 3-point line.
Since the 1992-93 season, Winston is one of just six players from the top six conferences to average at least 18 points and seven assists. The short list includes players such as former Michigan State star Denzel Valentine, Trae Young at Oklahoma last year and Damon Stoudamire more than two decades ago at Arizona.
Winston’s success is not surprising to those who watched him grow up in the Motor City, playing with and against top competition at University of Detroit Jesuit and for The Family on the AAU circuit. Don’t be fooled by his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame.
“If you just look at his body, you would never think he’s as physical as he is,” said Brandon Boe Neely, who coached Winston from the age of 7 through high school for The Family. “I had three refs in three states one year tell me they’ve never seen a kid that physical after he got hit so hard kids were knocking his headband off.”
Winston has worn a headband since he was in the second grade and his dad traces the tradition to his son’s affection for former NBA player Paul Piece.
Winston creates space with slick ball handling, changing speeds and using angles that he sees before his opponents do. His bag of tricks sets him up for an array of jumpers, floaters runners and passes.
The toughest test of his career might be up next: The Red Raiders are one of college basketball’s best defensive teams.
“I’m sure they’re going to trap and try to take Cassius out of a lot of things,” Izzo said. “Maybe they will, but if they do they’ll do something that not many other teams have done.”
Just four other Spartans have done what Winston has already done, being named All-America and Big Ten player of the year since the conference created the award after Johnson’s college career: Shawn Respert, Cleaves, Draymond Green and Valentine.
The truly coveted group, though, includes just Johnson and Cleaves.
“Cassius has done enough to set himself in that same footprint with those guys,” Izzo said.