Photo credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Cassius Winston
Entering the campaign, Tom Izzo’s Spartans were pegged at 25-1 odds to win the national title at the Westgate SuperBook. They opened at 15-1 after last season, so oddsmakers believed losing Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges to the NBA would hold them back.
Michigan State finds itself around 12-1 to cut down the nets on April 8, as Izzo has pulled off one of his most masterful coaching performances yet. But don’t forget about his point guard’s significance in propelling Sparty to a share of the Big Ten regular season crown.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Cassius Winston has evolved into arguably the top player at his position, amassing the third-highest assist rate (44.8%) in college basketball. His vision off the bounce gives MSU one of the most deadly pick-and-roll offenses, too.
Mateen Cleaves (1996-2000) might have something to say about Winston’s status as the program’s best point guard since Magic Johnson, but the latter’s win shares (6.4) sit above Cleaves at any point during his Spartans career, per Sports Reference.
So just how significant is the likely 2018-19 Big Ten Player of the Year to the spread?
Matt Lindeman, an oddsmaker at Caesars Palace, noted Winston represents one of the five most impactful players across Division I, grouping him near Duke’s Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, and in front of Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. His value goes beyond this season, too.
“He’s (Winston) probably worth two and a half, three (points) which maybe doesn’t sound that crazy, but it’s pretty extreme,” Lindeman said. “Trae Young [last season] … was worth more than anyone this year, even Zion. [Deandre] Ayton, Jalen Brunson and Edwards again last year [were all up there]. Josh Hart a couple years ago. I think you could probably say he’s top-10 [in terms of value to the spread over the past three seasons].”
MSU lacked another reliable ball-handler after losing Joshua Langford to a season-ending foot injury on Dec. 29, which has forced Izzo to ride him the rest of the way. His backup Foster Loyer owns a 30.2% turnover rate, and the slower-footed wing Matt McQuaid can only handle so much of those duties.
Winston isn’t just defined by his uncanny assists, either. He’s guided Michigan State to a 22-9 against the spread record because of his elite shooting prowess and play-making on the attack, generating a 55.8 eFG% en route to 19.0 points per game.
The Detroit native owned the 26th-highest eFG% (64.0%) in the country last season, but he’s also attempting 5.1 more shots per game as a junior.
Winston represents one of the more underrated on-ball defenders as well, sparking the Spartans’ ninth-rated Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (90.7 opponents’ points per 100 possessions) from the head of the arc. Michigan’s Xavier Simpson owned him in their two matchups last season, but Winston returned the favor at that end of the floor on Saturday, holding Simpson to a mere six points (3-of-13 shooting).
Among major conference players, only Tennssee’s Grant Williams (7.2) and Williamson (6.5) have higher win shares than Winston. Just Barrett and Edwards boast a higher minutes percentage than him (82.4%) within KenPom’s top-10 players, too.
Overall, I’d place him third in my power ratings, sitting behind Williamson and Culver, while providing three points to the spread. Even though the Spartans have failed to move beyond the first weekend each of the past three seasons, betting against Winston and Co. might not be the wisest move this time around.