EAST LANSING — The end of the evening went exactly to plan. MSU cruised to victory, and Cassius Winston stood at mid-court with Tom Izzo and Spartan legend Mateen Cleaves. The legend from National Title run of 2000 embraced the emerging legend of 2020 and passed to him a symbolic white basketball.
A 20-year old record had been broken, and it was not just an MSU record, it was a Big Ten record. Cassius Winston, with his 817th career assist, now sits alone atop the standing with the most assists in Big Ten history. He broke that record, appropriately, on a beautiful dump-down to his favorite target and partner in crime, Xavier Tillman, who dunked the ball home and brought the crowd to their collective feet.
Coach Izzo beamed with pride and later in the post-game press conference, used one of his favorite analogies to describe the situation. “To be successful in football, you have to have a good QB, and I had two of the greatest ones standing up there. What a thrill for me to be able to say that I recruited both of them, and coached both of them, and they carried me.”
However, despite this incredible achievement, Winston did not have a great game. “Cash had a tough night,” said coach Tom Izzo following the game. He even went so far as to call his performance “average.” The stats show that Winston only shot 3 for 12 from the field and 0 for 3 from three, at least two of which were woefully short.
With Winston scoring only 6 points, it was up the rest of the wings to pick up the slack.
And pick it up they did.
While Xavier Tillman did lead the team in scoring with 15, it was the trio of Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, and Rocket Watts that carried the team to victory. They scored 13, 13, and 11 points respectively on 14-22 shooting (63%) including 6 of 9 (67%) from three, and a particularly nasty dunk by Brown that almost blew the roof off Breslin. It was so nasty, in fact, that the officials decided a technical foul was needed.
Whatever guys. We can agree to disagree on that one.
Coach Izzo was pleased with the performance of all three. “There is no question that Aaron, Gabe, and Rocket were special tonight.” If MSU is going to be able to meet some of the expectations set at the beginning of the season, improved guard play outside of Winston is a must.
When asked if it felt good that his team did so well despite a the lack of a big scoring night from Cassius, Izzo was not so sure. “Maybe that would make me feel good for one night, but I would prefer that never happen again. He is just so valuable to me.”
In addition, Izzo slipped in another encouraging quote seconds before leaving the podium, “Hopefully we will get Arnie [Kyle Arhens] back in a week or two.” It never hurts to have another guard in March, or in the dog-days of the Big Ten schedule.
While MSU now enjoys a 6-1 conference record and sits alone at the top of the Big Ten standings, 5 of those 6 wins have come inside the walls of the Jack Breslin Center. After tonight, that all changes. MSU will play 3 of the next 4 and 5 of the next 7 on the road.
Big Ten teams, as a whole, are now 38-6 at home.
When I asked Xavier Tillman what the teams needed to do to break this trend he answered that they need to “Really know the scouting report. Know the tendencies and have our keys... you just have to follow the scouting report to a tee and trust it. Because it’s going to be loud and hard to communicate so if everybody knows what they are supposed to do, then we’ll be ready.”
They will get a chance to prove just that next Thursday night in Bloomington, IN.