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Basketball Roundup: On the Eve of March

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The Spartans hit the final stretch of the season with Cassius Winston leading them towards another conference title

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Well here we are on the eve of March. Michigan State has three regular season games left and then it is post-season tournament time. It has been an interesting journey up to this point. Injuries have tempered expectations for a team that seemed to have the highest of possible ceilings. And yet, as we head into the month of madness, this team continues to give us reasons to believe in them.

Team Ranks

Let’s start by checking in on MSU’s kenpom ranks. The Spartans have been a top-five team in the kenpom rankings for the majority of the season now, and that hasn’t changed. MSU remains pretty cemented in fourth place, with about the same gap between them and both the third and fifth place teams. Virginia, Gonzaga, and Duke remain the top three teams in that order.

The Spartans have been a top ten team in both offensive and defensive efficiency for most of the year as well and that remains the case. MSU is sixth in AdjO and eighth in AdjD. Duke and Virginia are the only other teams to be top ten in both.

We have highlighted this before but the last time MSU was top ten in both was the 2001 Final Four team.

Cash Money

Cassius Winston’s birthday is today so this seems like as good a time as any to go through his resume for at least Big Ten Player of the Year, if not National Player of the Year.

Winston has now set the school record for most Big Ten Player of the Week awards in season after winning it for the fifth time this year for his performance last week. To recap that performance:

Rutgers: 28 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 36 minutes

Michigan: 27 points, 8 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, 40 minutes

Winston also made 22 of his 24 free throw attempts in the two games.

I mentioned this on twitter but Winston is now averaging over 19 points per game (19.2) and over seven assists per game (7.5), which would make him the second Spartan to ever accomplish the feat (Valentine).

He also has an outside chance to become the first Spartan to average 20 points per game since Shawn Respert. If he was to get to 20 points per game and maintain his assists he would be the first Spartan to average 20 points and 7 assists in a season.

Last week Winston also broke the 200 assist mark for the second straight season, making him one of only four MSU players with multiple 200 assist seasons. The others are Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves, and Eric Snow.

All this is being done while Winston continues to have a heavy workload. The last four games he is averaging 37 minutes per game, but putting up 22.8 points, 7.5 assists, and 4 rebounds, while turning it over just 3.3 times.

The one area that he has actually fallen off in is three point shooting, just 32% over the last four games. However, he is getting to the free throw line 8.5 times per game, and is connecting at a 91.2% clip from the charity stripe.

Winston is going to have to continue to carry the load until Ward (hopefully) returns, but so far he has shown he is up to the task. The performance against Michigan was the kind that win you awards. It also erased any talk of Cassius not being able to get the job done against the Wolverines. He was the best player on the floor and it wasn’t close.

Kenny Goins Has Reached Stud Status

I am not sure I have ever seen a player develop as much throughout a season as Goins has this year. Forget the fact that he went from walk-on to starting for a top-10 Michigan State team at the start of the year, impressive as that is. But Goins has gone from role player/defensive and rebounding guy to legit stud, and he has gotten better as the competition has improved.

In Big Ten play, Goins is now averaging 8.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. That is some great production from a guy who came into the year averaging 2.6 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The last four games, Goins is averaging a double-double, with 10.8 points and 10.5 rebounds. He’s also dishing out 1.5 assists and is shooting 37.5% from downtown.

This after Goins said it was time for everyone on the team to “nut up or shut up.” Well I think we have seen which way they have gone, and Goins has led both by example, and vocally.

Conference Dominance

For the first time in school history, Michigan State has won 30 Big Ten games over a two year span. The previous best was the 2009 and 2010 teams, which won 29 conference games.

Now you might be saying “well don’t they play more conference games now?” Why yes they do. However, the 09 and 10 teams won 29 games out of 36 total. This group has gone 30-5 over the last two seasons, meaning they have not needed the extra games to eclipse the mark.

I don’t care who you are, winning 30 out of 35 games in the Big Ten is an incredible feat, and if this team can finish off the season and secure a second straight Big Ten Title, their regular season conference dominance should be recognized as a truly great achievement.

X Gonna Give it to Ya

With Nick Ward out, the Spartans badly needed Xavier Tillman to step up his game and help provide some of the production that they were losing. He has been more than up to the task.

In the three games before Ward got hurt, Tillman was averaging just 5.3 points and 5.7 rebounds. He was only attempting 3.7 shots per game.

In the two games without Ward, Tillman is averaging 16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and is attempting 10 shots per game. He has also gotten to the free throw line eight times, after attempting just six in the previous three games combined.

On top of all that Tillman has continued to play great defense. If he can continue to provide this type of offense, the Spartans should be in decent shape to whether the storm until Ward’s return.

Final Stretch

MSU has one game this week, Saturday at Indiana. After that they have two home games left, against Nebraska and then senior night against Michigan. None of those games will be easy, but hopefully the mid-week bye this week will allow them to recover from the Michigan game and gear up for the final stretch.

This team has been incredibly fun to watch, despite the injuries and the random losing streak. I really hope they can finish strong, get Ward back, and head into the tournament riding high, because this feels like a group that has deep March run potential, if they can just catch a few breaks and put it together.