Winston leads No. 1 Michigan State

- Chris Solari USA TODAY Network

EAST LANSING, Mich. – To Cassius Winston, last year was only “a taste.”

Of what Michigan State basketball can reach this season. Of what he, personally, can attain.

“Every situation you’re in, every award you get, it’s just a blessing, it’s an honor,” Winston said when practice opened for the defending Big Ten champion Spartans. “You can’t take it for granted. You gotta remain humble, remember what got you those awards and try and keep that same mind-set so you can get that and go further.”

Going further would mean taking MSU from a Final Four team to a national champion. And for Winston, the senior from Detroit, it would mean making the leap from Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American to the national player of the year.

Neither of which is a stretch.

The Spartans, who went 32-7 and lost to Texas Tech in April in the Final Four in Minneapoli­s, will enter their opener against Kentucky at the Champions Classic in New York as the No. 1 team in the USA TODAY preseason poll. It’s the first time in school history Michigan State has started the season at No. 1.

And Individual expectatio­ns also are building for Winston. Veteran college basketball reporter Andy Katz this summer ranked the 6-1, 185-pound point guard as his No. 1 player going into this season.

“He’s an extension of (coach) Tom Izzo in a program that’s had exceptiona­l point guards for decades,” Katz said in unveiling his top players. “He could be one of the best college basketball point guards – we’re not talking about the NBA here, not talking about any kind of future Hall of Famer – but college basketball point guards at Michigan State. He could be one of the best.

“And he’s got a chance to leave a legacy and leave a mark, and not just get player of the year in the Big Ten or nationally, but take Michigan State back to a Final Four and this time win it.”

Winston, who was a 2019 finalist for the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard (won by Murray State’s Ja Morant), is still trying to process the praise.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Winston said. “It’s hard to think of because it wasn’t in the plan really. It’s just kind of was out there, you know, an out-there idea. So it still probably hasn’t really hit me yet.

“I’m just trying to get better, trying to do what I can to help my team, and everything else will fall into place.”

Winston was named Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus second-team All-American as a junior, getting firstteam All-American accolades from The Sporting News and the Associated Press. He averaged 18.8 points and 7.5 assists in 33.5 minutes in 39 games.

It took a little more than two weeks after the Final Four for Winston to announce his plans to return to MSU for his final season rather than testing the NBA draft. He and Joshua Langford remain from Izzo’s vaunted 2016 recruiting class that included Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. Langford is expected to be sideline until at least January with a recurring foot and ankle injury.

Winston’s minutes continuall­y increased last season as injuries mounted for the Spartans. While his shooting dipped, his leadership and scoring increased. Izzo made Winston a captain in February. He responded, while coping with aching knees in the second half of the season, by guiding his team on a resurgent run to capture a share of the league title and postseason Big Ten tournament crown, beating rival Michigan three times in the process. And he ran out the clock in the Elite Eight as the Spartans secured Izzo’s eighth Final Four appearance by outlasting nemesis Duke in Washington.

“He is one of our captains,” Izzo said, “and he is gonna be an important cog because he has the experience. … I think what he can do is, he’s a kid that doesn’t get nervous, you know? So I think he’ll help with a calming effect to that.

“What I’m hoping he does is stay even more driven, because I think players respect what he can do. And I’m hoping he leads a little better even more so than he did.”

After the grueling season, Winston took about a month away from basketball “just to put everything away.”

He spent much of the summer working on his strength, particular­ly in his quads to help alleviate future knee issues.

“I was definitely tired at the end of last year. Definitely, definitely tired,” Winston said with a laugh.

“I just spent a big summer working on my conditioni­ng, my lower-body strength – all the type of things where I promised myself that I won’t feel that fatigue. I’m gonna push it all the way through and be OK.”

Izzo said it will be up to him and assistant Dwayne Stephens to do a better job of substituti­ons, and a more experience­d Foster Loyer and freshman Rocket Watts should allow Winston more time to rest.

But Izzo also knows, after watching last season, the Spartans go as their leader goes.

And he promised that Winston will play “a lot of minutes.”

“I talk to Cassius a lot. (We) have spent a lot of time together on how to deal with (expectatio­ns),” Izzo said. “There’s no magical number, that’s why so few teams have done it. But at the same time, this is what you dream of. If you’re a coach, you dream about this; if you’re a fan, you dream about this; and if you’re a player, you definitely dream about this. …

“What I like is even though we have some experience, and Cassius is one, I don’t think the pressure will get him. I think it’ll get him a little more than he thinks, but I don’t think it’ll get him like it will some guys just because the way the kid is.”

It gets real starting Nov. 5. The bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Prime-time TV. Perennial power Kentucky. With games against likely top-10 teams Duke and Seton Hall, and potentiall­y Kansas to follow.

No pressure, right? But No one said topping last season would be easy.

“You got a little taste of it. That’s never enough,” Winston said. “You want to take it another step further.”

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