It will be a strange feeling for Michigan State basketball fans next season when they watch their team enter the Breslin Center through the players tunnel. A lot of familiar faces will be there but one of them will be missing. One they‘ve all grown accustomed to for the better part of the last four years. It‘ll be Cassius Winston‘s infectious smile that won‘t be among those of his teammates anymore, a group he has led to great heights in recent years and that he is leaving behind with a gigantic void.
While everyone will miss the step back three pointers, the dazzling dimes and the whirlwind fast breaks that made Winston famous throughout the entire nation, there is something he brought that might even be more important than the out of this world basketball skills. Cassius Winston in the last two years has been a great leader for Michigan State, a figure who gave the entire team an identity and a face, someone who everyone could look up to and in whose footsteps they could follow. Ever since Josh Langford went down his junior year with a season-ending injury the Spartans were undoubtedly Winston‘s team. Quietly and in his own way he led MSU to two regular season Big Ten championships, a Big Ten Tournament title and a Final Four berth while becoming a two-time All American and Big Ten Player Of The Year himself. If the coronavirus pandemic wouldn‘t have cut his senior season short, who knows what accolades he might have added. He represented the program perfectly not only on the outside but also on the inside as he was the focal point everyone could rally around, even after losing his own brother to suicide late in 2019.
Filling the void Winston leaves behind in East Lansing will be a tall task, especially for head coach Tom Izzo. Winston was another in a long list of great point guards who were also leaders for the green and white, a position that Izzo loves to lay plenty of responsibility on and which he sees as his brain out on the court. But he is gone and there will be a new reality, one that will come to forefront during the games, in the huddle, in the locker room and maybe most importantly behind closed doors. Izzo has always been adamant about the fact that a team led by players is better off than a team just led by the coaches. So which player will take over as the leader for Michigan State? Who can step up and at least fill part of the void left by one of the greatest Spartans ever?
Obvious choice would be Xavier Tillman
If Xavier Tillman would decide to skip the NBA Draft and return to East Lansing the problem would for the most part seem solved. During his junior year the two-time father has developed into one of the best big men in the entire nation by pairing versatile and fundamentally sound offense with suffocating defense all over the hardwood. Tillman is tough, smart, can speak his mind, has a legendary work ethic and is as pure a role model as you can find on or off the court. X would definitely have no problem at all to confront teammates, to demand respect or hard work and he would surely not back down from any challenge put in front of him.
If he would play college ball next season Tillman would clearly be the focal point of Michigan State‘s offense and maybe even more important their defense. He would have the ball in his hands, he would direct teammates from the backline and he would initiate a lot of things. When you are a big time player, someone who is on the forefront in many situations and naturally carries a lot of responsibility it becomes that much easier to morph into a great leader and a player who others will follow. If you are a role player or even a bench player, it becomes a lot more complicated as there‘s only so much active impact you can have. Which brings us to Josh Langford.
Josh Langford‘s return a welcome surprise
As covered perfectly by Sam yesterday, the fifth-year senior has apparently decided to return to Michigan State for one more season. He‘s trying to put a conciliatory end to a career that had started so well yet unfortunately was completely derailed by injuries from the start of his junior year. The mysterious foot injury that has bothered Langford for almost two full seasons seems to be OK now and the shooting guard is trying to give it one last go. How close he can get to the playing level he possessed before his injuries remains to be seen and it will have a direct impact on his ability to lead for the Spartans.
On the one hand Langford would truly have the makings of becoming the clear cut number one leader for MSU if he even comes close to the level he played at earlier in his career. He embodies many of the qualities that Tom Izzo and the coaches value and has already delivered big performances in big games. During his time on the bench he has learned a lot about the coaching side, has earned consistent praise from Tom Izzo for his off court work and as a de facto elder statesman has been someone many of the younger players look up to. His strong faith and maturity also play a huge part in that regard.
On the other hand though — and that might be the more likely outcome or the one you should plan for — Langford‘s role might be limited to due to his long absence from the game. There are huge question marks regarding his playing shape and if he can withstand the rigors of a full college basketball season. But anyway, even if he only manages to become a part time player, having him back on the team as an active member is tremendously valuable for the Spartans and they sure will surely profit from it on and off the court.
Will Aaron Henry take the next step?
Playing time and physical ability shouldn‘t concern anybody with Aaron Henry but a lot of people wonder if he can take the next step mentally as a junior. Many fans and even his own coaches had expected him to already rise to the forefront as a sophomore but the results were mixed at best. Especially at the beginning of the year Henry struggled to deal with more responsibility and regularly disappeared for long stretches. Being that passive was double frustrating because whenever he decided to play aggressive and choose to use his versatile ability and physical talents he looked like a player who could do serious damage. To the end of the season those good stretches came more often and clearly give root for optimism regarding the next campaign.
Henry submitted his name to the NBA Draft, but is widely expected to return to school. The Spartans will need Henry to be more assertive, especially if Tillman leaves. He can create his own shot, he can be a great initiator and while also being a dominant defender. All these things would make him a player who could easily lead by example and with his play. Going back to high school Henry also was key as a point forward to his team Ben Davis (Indianapolis. Indiana) winning a state title and you sensed that he definitely could have strong leadership abilities in him. If those come to surface down the road and on a completely different level is the million dollar question now. A lot will depend on what role Tom Izzo is giving Henry. Will he be a third option to Rocket Watts and Joey Hauser (or fourth if Tillman returns)? Or will Izzo look at his small forward and ask him to take over more?
Some young guys and a wild card
The longer you look at the Spartans roster the more you might come to the conclusion that they will most likely depend on a leadership by committee approach, at least early on. Next to the aforementioned players the two young point guards Rocket Watts and A.J. Hoggard will surely be looked upon to take part in that as well. Watts is penciled in to play heavy minutes and probably will be MSU‘s most willing shot creator and taker. He has impressed the coaches with his defense and will surely push for more on his plate. An at times erratic approach to offense and the learning curve of becoming a floor general could force Watts into quite a few struggles that might make it hard for him to really grasp a leading position though. That he has lead dog mentalities in him should be pretty obvious to anyone.
For Hoggard the way is definitely even longer as he is just starting his Spartans career and will take time to acclimate himself and work on his body. More than any other player though Hoggard might possess what you would call natural leadership abilities. Tom Izzo has compared his mental makeup to that of Mateen Cleaves and while you want to take such early praise with a little grain of salt, it certainly shows that Hoggard brings certain qualities to the table — qualities that might be needed earlier rather than later.
Last but not least Joey Hauser could help out on the leadership front. As with all the others, there are question marks, like how much of an impact he can have on the floor as a first time Big Ten player and how quickly he will find his role on a new team. In terms of his basketball talent though he could definitely take up a big position on next year‘s team and his year off due to his transfer from Marquette could have majorly benefitted his game and mental fortitude.
Either way, the question of leadership will most likely occupy the Spartans for a while and it will be fascinating how they tackle the tall task of replacing Cassius Winston‘s leadership. It‘s a tough job, no question, but somebody‘s got to do it.