Cassius Winston was among the 20,006 people who had settled into their seats at Capital One Arena to watch Duke play Virginia Tech on Friday night, and he, too, was witness to the absurdity of Blue Devils superstar Zion Williamson throughout the night. But Winston, who just an hour earlier had more quietly led Michigan State to a win over LSU to advance to the NCAA tournament’s East Region final, also kept a close eye on Duke freshman guard Tre Jones. By halftime, as he exited the arena to head back to his hotel with his teammates, Winston had seen enough of Jones — how he controlled the offense, how he was unafraid to shoot, how relentless he was on defense — to know he would have his work cut out if the teams met in the next round.

By early Saturday morning, after Duke had survived with a last second, 75-73 victory, Winston had fully shifted his attention to Jones before Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup between the teams. “He does a lot of big things for them, and [he is] probably slept on a lot, in a lot of ways, because they have a lot of guys with a lot of publicity and a lot of hype,” Winston said of Jones.

These point guards don’t know each other, and their paths to this moment have never crossed. The differences between the two are striking: the 21-year-old Winston is nearly three years older than Jones. Winston has played in twice as many NCAA tournament games, the latest in a long line of Michigan State veteran guards who have become heroes in March. Jones, meanwhile, could be one of four one-and-done Duke freshmen to declare for the NBA draft, potentially following in the footsteps of his older brother, Tyus, who left school after helping the Blue Devils win the national championship as a freshman four years ago.

Yet both Winston and Jones see similar traits in one another; both are fiery competitors who facilitate wildly talented rosters, and both have had to develop in the shadows. Three years ago, Winston signed with a Michigan State recruiting class that included five-star prospects Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford. As a sophomore, he played on a team that also featured highly touted recruit Jaren Jackson Jr., an eventual lottery pick.

Jones can relate; he has learned on the fly as a point guard while Williamson has dominated headlines alongside future lottery picks RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. Yet the matchup between Winston and Jones could be the most crucial in determining which team advances to the Final Four.

“He has an extremely high IQ,” Jones said of Winston. “He makes all the decisions for them. So [I’m] just going to try to make the game as tough as I can on him.”

Winston finished with 17 points on 7-for-16 shooting in the win over LSU, but it was again his ability to facilitate that kept Michigan State rolling to its 13th win in 14 games. Winston, who is second nationally in assist rate (45.3), finished with eight assists Friday to push his total to 32 over the past four games. Only Williamson (130.4) ranks ahead of Winston (121.8) in national offensive rating, according to the analytics website, underscoring the efficiency that Jones touched on at length in his meeting with reporters Saturday.

“I’m able to see, from point guard to point guard, just the way he is able to control a game and the reads he’s able to make on defense. He has the ball a ton on offense,” Jones said.

Winston had watched Jones hit three three-pointers in the first half of Friday night’s win over Virginia Tech, and he came away impressed with how resilient the young point guard had been on the offensive end. “I saw him knocking down shots. That was big for him. We heard that he had been struggling a little bit,” Winston said of Jones, who is shooting just 26.5 percent from three-point range this season and hadn’t hit multiple three-pointers in a game since November.

He nailed five Friday night and finished with 22 points, a crucial contribution given that Reddish was sitting out with a knee injury. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Reddish is a game-time decision against Michigan State, which could leave the Blue Devils in need of expanded scoring from Jones again. Williamson and Barrett will garner most of the attention, but Winston won’t sleep on Jones.

“He does his job,” Winston said. “He does his job to the best of his ability for that team, and that’s huge.”

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