In the First Round of the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesers Arena against 14-seeded Bucknell, the Michigan State Basketball team finally put together the high-powered offensive performance they have been searching for since the final stretch of the regular season. Miles Bridges’s 29 points and the re-emergence of Josh Langford’s mid-range shot were big reasons for that. But what set them up for their big offensive nights was sophomore Cassius Winston.
Winston’s ball movement was an offensive catalyst Friday night that found open shooters, put guys in the right spots, and put the Michigan State offense in a more consistent tempo. When the Spartans play 11-seeded Syracuse in the Second Round, Winston and MSU will take on a 2-3 zone defense unlike any other.
It is the staple to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Syracuse basketball. And for Michigan State to beat it and advance past the Orange, Winston is going to have to lead them through it.
The Spartans have not faced a zone like Syracuse since way back in November when they fell in Chicago to Duke in the Champions Classic. Then, Michigan State and Winston were raw to that type of defense. And the lack of experience going against it showed, especially for the sophomore point guard. The three points he scored was a season low. The five turnovers is tied for the third most this season only behind the six he gave up against Oakland on Dec. 17 and the eight he had at Illinois on Jan 22.
Syracuse’s zone resembles it. However, it is more compact and forces opponents to commit turnovers at a much more higher rate.
“It is a long, probably the longest zone we are going to play,” said Winston. “So we gotta do a great job of limiting the turnovers. Can’t let them get turnovers– got to keep the ball moving, make smart plays.”
For all but two plays, Winston did just that against Bucknell Friday night. Winston led the charge in one of Michigan State’s best offensive performances in the last month. And it was not for his scoring, but for the way he initiated Michigan State’s offensive ball movement. The Spartans finished with 21 assists, the most since the 20 they recorded on senior night against Illinois. 10 of which came from Winston, the first time he has reached double-digits assists since the Spartans’s win against Purdue on Feb 10.
And the lack of crisp ball movement from Winston among others coincided with Michigan State’s offensive inconsistencies. But against the Bison, the Spartan guards– led by Winston– swung the ball around the perimeter, made the extra passes and found the open shooter.
Then there were the two plays by Winston that were not so stellar. One almost got a key play hurt, and the other made a 3-on-1 fast break look like rocket science.
Midway through the second half, Winston attempted to throw a lob to Michigan State forward Nick Ward. The errant pass was too high and forced Ward to stretch over his defender to attempt to grab it. Ward failed to come down with the ball, rolled over Bucknell’s Kimbal Mckenzie, and landed awkwardly on his neck. It forced him to come out of the game however he was able to return.
The latter, on a fast break with Ward and Bridges, Winston went for the highlight play– or “home-run play” as he calls it. Winston threw a lob over his head in the direction of Bridges. Bridges failed to collect the ball and the Spartans failed to score on that possession. In the moment, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo was clearly unhappy at the errors that should be past Winston at this stage of the season.
“I think Cassius last night, he threw that one lob,” Izzo said. ” I did not see what happened with Nck. All I saw is I thought it went off the other guy. I was complaining about that. I knew Nick was tough enough. But then the other one, when he threw it, we kind of had Nick in and Miles coming in.”
However, Izzo focused on the more of the good that Winston showed and has been showing all season.
“Hey, Cash is Cash, but he’s improved so much,” he said. “I just felt like he has had 10 assists and two turnovers and done some great things.”
But Winston knows going forward, and especially against the zone of Syracuse, he can’t afford to have multiple mistakes of that caliber.
“Sometimes I get in the habit of trying to make a big play or a home-run play, which I got better at but I got to break that habit,” Winston said after Michigan State’s First Round win. “I got to do a better job of playing smarter and looking at the situations.”
“You have got to keep it in your mind,” he said. ” You have got to focus on that a lot of times. Sometimes you let the game get to you so you think there is something that you can make a play. So if I keep it on the back of my mid and focus on the simple play, then that problem will be fixed.”
He will have the responsibility of getting the ball to the open shooters around the arc, finding the open man in the middle of zone, and taking care of the ball in a game where Michigan State may not be able to afford double-digit turnovers. And nobody understands those responsibilities more than Winston.
“Just to make sure our team does not get impatient, make sure we are playing with a lot of confidence,” said Winston. “It is going to be times a zone like that can be frustrating. So I have got to do a good job of keeping everybody together, keeping our heads together. And we are going to do a good job moving the ball and getting quality shots.”
“He is going to have his work cut out for him tomorrow,” said Izzo.” This will be a great test for Cassius.”
Contact Justin Frommer: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jbf3498.