NEW YORK CITY, NY. — Cassius Winston walks off the court, through the tunnel, past a hoard of people and into the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Staring squarely at the ground, he simply shakes his head.
Just 24 hours prior, Michigan State’s sophomore point guard had pleaded for a rematch with Michigan and sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson.
“He got what he wants,” Simpson said after Michigan dismantled the Spartans, 75-64, to advance to the Big Ten Championship on Sunday.
Simpson held the perplexed Winston to 3-for-10 shooting in Saturday’s game, including 0-for-4 from three. It was the second time in as many matchups that Simpson outplayed Winston. When he got the scouting report listing Winston as his matchup before the game, Simpson licked his fingers. Not figuratively, either.
“He was literally licking his fingers,” said fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson.
At the beginning of the game, Simpson even found himself guarding Spartans’ star Miles Bridges for a few possessions — and held him scoreless. Simpson is an elite defender, but you already know this.
He’s earned a larger role this season, taking the starting job from freshman Eli Brooks early in the season and running with it, averaging 32.7 minutes per game in his last 10 games. But you’ve seen that progression.
He made 6-of-8 free throw attempts to clinch the game and send Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament final, but you watched that.
He scored 15 points, including the opening, tone-setting 3-pointer. He’s gone from 1.6 points per game a season ago to 7.2, and a 37-percent shooter to a 47-percent shooter. He’s a more potent offensive threat this season, but you can read that in a box score.
What can’t you see?
“He starts it all,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “He’s our pitbull.”
“Man, he’s just a winner, a winner,” added fifth-year senior Jaaron Simmons. “He’s a leader. He talks to everybody. He’s really got that dog in him. He’s got that dog work, and it bleeds onto the rest of the team.”
Simpson isn’t just a vastly improved basketball player. He’s the alpha dog running the show, setting the tone. He’s the leader at the position, and it’s a role he’s come to relish.
“We have some great leaders — Muhammad, Duncan and Moe,” Simpson said, amid an atypical hoard of reporters around his locker. “But then again, I’m the most vocal guy. … With a voice like mine, I think it’s important for me to use it. Guys respect me, and I just want to keep playing, continue to do what I’m doing.”
The Wolverines wouldn’t be a win away from a second-consecutive Big Ten Tournament Championship without his growth on the stat sheet. But the impact he’s made on the team’s mentality — and the now-6th-ranked defense in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com — isn’t quantifiable. But it’s real. It’s seen in the shrugs of a dejected Cassius Winston, in the flailing elbows of Miles Bridges and in the heart of the hottest team in college basketball.
From the initial tip-off, the heat of an in-state rivalry played in “the Mecca of basketball” set tempers ablaze. Redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews found himself in tussels, Michigan State forward Nick Ward earned a technical foul, Michigan coach John Beilein was yelling at referees, enthused fans traded chants of “Go Blue” and “Go Green, Go White.”
And when Bridges fouled out with 1:34 left, freshman guard Jordan Poole offered his goodbye, waving at Bridges as he left the court.
“It was kinda like, ‘Whatever, man. Leave.’ He was jawing the whole game,” Poole said. “Then it gets like that (and he) fouls out. He said so much stuff about us, about us not being tough. It’s was kind of like a sayonara.”
It’s no secret that the two teams don’t like each other, nor that the game turned chippy. And it’s times like that it pays off to have a “pitbull” at the center of it all.
“X is a guy where if you had to go into a fight with someone, he comes out there no matter what,” Poole said. “No matter what happens, in what situation, X is definitely going to ride with you. He’s going to be there. Having a point guard (like that) out on the court is definitely one of the best situations to be in.”
Added fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson: “I can’t think of anybody I want more (in a physical game). Honestly. Talk about a guy who just epitomizes toughness. He’s fearless, too. The guy is, whatever, maybe 6-feet. Just tough as nails. I’m happy he’s my teammate, that’s for sure.”
With 7:16 left, Simpson dashed by Winston, finishing at the rim to extend the lead to 54-47. As he trotted back toward midcourt, after Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called timeout, he repeatedly motioned his fingers down toward the floor, with the feeling of a second-straight Big Ten Tournament Championship game appearance imminent.
His court. His state. His team.