Michigan State Spartans basketball is full of players that could be categorized as “fan favorites” and players that helped the program reach elite status. These unique players bring a smile to the faces of fans whenever they are brought up, bringing back those good feelings.
None of them compare to Cassius Winston.
When MSU fans and college basketball fans across the country were asked who has brought them to tears the most in college athletics, Winston was among the most prominent and frequent names mentioned. Again, across the country for both football and basketball, Winston’s four years in East Lansing were among the most meaningful.
Also among the frequently mentioned was Winston’s head coach, Tom Izzo.
When Winston came to Michigan State as a freshman, Michigan State was at a low point. Coming off of a devastating upset loss as a two-seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the 2016 Spartans were led by a group of highly touted freshman. While that included Winston, he was almost the additional piece – Miles Bridges was already a star, Nick Ward quickly became a force and Joshua Langford had undeniable talent.
By the end of the year, Winston was a key player. In his sophomore year it was easy to see his play improve. He became a scorer while piling up assists to Ward, Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. However, the team took another early exit from the NCAA Tournament and then lost two of those stars to the NBA.
It was his junior season when Winston became one of the greats in MSU history. Winston was the unquestioned leader of the still-young team. His level of play grew exponentially, developing not only an elite jump shot, but becoming a true assassin on attacks to the rim despite not having elite athletic ability. When the Spartans started the NCAA Tournament, Winston was playing his best basketball. Fans were believing this team could bring them back to the Final Four.
Winston delivered, and the world got this moment.
At this point, Winston was already a superstar in Michigan State history. But returning to East Lansing for his senior year, Winston had the Spartans ranked No. 1 in the country.
That’s when he became a legend.
Before the year even started, MSU lost a star in Langford for the year. Then disaster hit Winston personally. In early November, Winston’s younger brother tragically passed away. The point guard found a way to still play in a game the next day. The strength shown by Winston that day, and days later when he addressed fans, made it impossible for MSU fans not to feel those emotions.
The season, at times, felt heavy. Winston had an understandably up-and-down start on the court. They went through stretches of looking almost pedestrian.
Then the senior took charge again.
By the time Winston kissed the Spartan logo on senior day, the team was playing at a level that had fans ready for another deep run. More than that, Winston was permanently in the hearts of anyone even remotely connected to MSU.
The crushing blow to find out shortly after that day that MSU wouldn’t get a chance to play for another Final Four and Winston’s time in East Lansing was over hit hard. Just like that, one of the program’s favorite players was done.
Cassius Winston’s senior season didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t what he deserved. But if there is any silver lining, Winston’s attitude on and off the court along with his play put him on an extremely short list of treasured MSU players.
Winston didn’t reach the highest level attained by other superstars, never winning a NCAA Championship. But for a generation of fans, Winston is the reason they love Michigan State. Magic and Mateen have a new member in their ranks.