EAST LANSING — As the scrum of reporters slowly started to dissipate, Cassius Winston sat in front of his locker in a white tank-top, eyes forward and engaged. Winston knew all too well that focus around this state will soon shift to himself and his counterpart in Ann Arbor, Zavier Simpson.
“We’re the leaders of our teams,” Winston said. “Both make our teams go.”
Inarguably, this is true. With shooting guard Josh Langford, and now center Nick Ward, gone, Winston’s importance has only been amplified for the Spartans. Early in Tuesday’s game against Rutgers, Winston drove the lane, tossing up a floater that Rutgers forward Myles Johnson blocked. Winston forced a smile, turned to run back on defense and smacked his hands together, the clap echoing through the Breslin Center.
As Winston struggled through the first half, shooting 3-for-9 from the field, Michigan State struggled, taking a seven-point deficit into the locker room.
After re-emerging from the tunnel, the opposite held true. Winston owned the game and owned a building whose mind was already on the weekend. With the Spartans holding a one-point lead and the game teetering, Winston again drove the lane and again found a floater. This one went, and wearing a much-wider smile, Winston again ran back down the floor, dapping up Michigan State guard Kyle Ahrens as he passed by.
In the second half, he scored 19 points, spearheading a comeback in what turned into a routine 71-60 win. He assisted six baskets. He played all 20 minutes, and when he asked to come out, Tom Izzo refused.
That, Izzo explained, is simply what Michigan State needs from Cassius Winston right now.
“Man,” Izzo said, “I’m asking him to do everything except this press conference right now. And somehow, I’m gonna convince him that that’s a privilege, not a problem.”
Across the state, Simpson spent the last year molding Michigan to his persona, instilling a defense-first culture that took the Wolverines to the Final Four last year and has gotten them to a 24-3 record and the No. 7 ranking thus far this season.
“His leadership right now is as good as anybody we’ve ever had,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after last Saturday’s 65-52 win over Maryland. During the timeouts, Beilein let the players talk among themselves to figure things out. Simpson grabbed the whiteboard. “He’s got that ‘it’ that you need to lead a team,” Beilein said, “and the team respects him.”
The story of Zavier Simpson and Cassius Winston has, in the past, focused around Zavier Simpson. On Sunday, when the Spartans and Wolverines meet, tied atop the Big Ten standings, it will be about Cassius Winston.
The backstory between the two has been well played out. Izzo and John Beilein both recruited Winston as their top priority at point guard in the class of 2016. Beilein told Simpson he was interested, but only as a backup plan, should Winston fall through. Winston chose Michigan State. Simpson ended up at Michigan and knows how to hold a grudge.
In the regular season last year, the Wolverines came up to East Lansing unranked and upset a top-five team, with Simpson holding Winston to 11 points and 4 turnovers. Then, on Mar. 2, after the Spartans beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament and with Michigan yet to play its game against Nebraska, Winston told reporters he wanted a rematch. He got one, but to little difference, scored 11 points, and again, he struggled in a loss.
These are the two levels on which Winston must operate Sunday. He must outplay Simpson because otherwise, the Spartans have little chance of winning. He must outplay Simpson because otherwise, he will be 0-3 against a player whom both schools recruited as a contingency — and in a lot of ways, that record will come precisely because of that fact.
This matchup is personal, at least on one side. On the other?
“Yeah, definitely,” Winston said. “Like I said, Michigan game. It’s always gonna be personal.”
Personal with Simpson, specifically?
“Uhh — I wouldn’t think about specifically. It would just — it comes with the game. You know what I’m saying?”
Thing is, Zavier Simpson might not.