There’s a sleepy-eyed beauty to Cassius Winston’s game that feels like it could have existed in any era of college basketball. When loading up the superlatives that are typically associated with the sport’s best player, it’s almost easier to start with what Winston is not.
He is not a one-and-done freshman using college like a gap year before jumping to the pros. He is not big, or fast, or long. He has never dunked in a game for the Spartans. He isn’t a projected first round NBA Draft pick, either. Rather, Winston became the best player in America by mastering the things that have been expected from a point guard for as long as the game has existed.
Winston’s resume was already bulletproof as he entered his senior year as the consensus No. 1 player in the country. His assist rate had ranked in the top-three of DI all three years he’d been in school. He was a 42 percent three-point shooter for his career. He had led Michigan State to consecutive Big Ten titles and powered a Final Four run last season that included an Elite Eight victory over Zion Williamson and Duke.
As Michigan State started the year atop the preseason polls, it felt like Winston’s final season of college basketball would be one of coronation. He never imagined he’d have to deal with tragedy to get there. A day before MSU’s second game of the season, Winston’s younger brother Zachary passed away. He chose to play through grief, using the game to comfort him during a time of immense emotional pain. Somehow, Winston’s play keeps getting better.
The Spartans faced Michigan on Jan. 5 in what was ostensibly a matchup of No. 12 vs. No. 14 in the polls, but this rivalry means so much more than that. For Winston, a Detroit native, a meeting with the Wolverines and their ace defensive point guard Zavier Simpson — Winston’s on-court foe since the fourth grade — is the ultimate measuring stick. Winston struggled against Michigan early in his college career before powering his team to a 3-0 record as a junior with a sterling combination of skill and moxie. Winston had nothing left to prove, yet he still went out and delivered the signature performance of his career.
Winston darted around screens for pull-up jumpers. He abused mismatches against slower defenders. He hit the roll man for alley-oops. He consistently got to the foul line and hit his free throws. When he was done, Winston had 32 points and nine assists on 11-of-19 shooting from the floor, in the process reaffirming his place as one of the greatest players to ever come through East Lansing.
Over his last four games, Winston is averaging 23.8 points and seven assists while shooting 52.4 percent from three on more than five attempts per game. The Spartans are rolling, winners of six straight, up to No. 3 overall in KenPom’s rankings, and owning the most efficient offense in America. Winston is at the center of it all. After early season losses to Kentucky, Duke, and Virginia Tech, the Spartans are starting to look like the juggernaut we expected all along.
Winston entered school as part of what was built as Tom Izzo’s greatest ever recruiting class. Miles Bridges was the headliner, a productive and explosive combo forward who stayed two years but never advanced past the round of 32. Nick Ward was the big man who thrived in the low post but struggled defensively for three years before turning pro and going undrafted. There was also Josh Langford, a McDonald’s All-American shooting guard who has battled injuries throughout his career and has been ruled out for his senior season after another foot surgery.
The last man standing is Winston, the 6-foot-nothing point guard who would be hard to separate from a normal student walking around campus if not for the enormous legacy he’s built. There have been more talented players to come through Michigan State, but none of them have defined the program quite like Winston, at least not since the glory days of Mateen Cleaves.
Cleaves ended his four-year career at Michigan State with a national championship. Winston’s Spartans will be a popular pick in March to do the same. Whether MSU can win six straight games in the NCAA tournament or not, Winston’s footprint on the program and on the sport is already secure. If you tried to create the perfect point guard for college basketball, that player would look a lot like Winston.