In the final seconds of the 108th game of Cassius Winston’s college basketball career, he had a wide-open lane to the basket, no Duke player between him and the rim, and he dribbled away, toward the sideline. He did this not because he was confused but because it was precisely the right thing to do. That’s what a 21-year-old junior does at the end of his 3,003rd minute on the floor in a Michigan State uniform: He does the right thing.
When Winston sprinted away from Duke’s cultural icon, Zion Williamson, he preserved, rather than extended, the Spartans’ 68-67 lead. He reached center court, heard the horn blare and flung the ball skyward. Williamson’s college career is over after 33 games. Winston’s continues at least to Minneapolis and the Final Four, which says nothing about his senior season, which will follow.
The contrasts in the moment were obvious. There was Williamson, pulling his jersey out and tucking it into his mouth, unsure what to do. There was Tre Jones, who had tried to guard Winston all night, doubled over with his own jersey pulled over his face. Each is more athletic than Winston. Each is more talented than Winston. Neither is as game-hardened.
Think about what Winston knows that neither Williamson nor Jones nor their fellow freshmen RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish — all presumed gone for the NBA, just puffs of smoke in college — will never understand about the college game’s demands, its nuances. The difference in the tough and smart player who pushed and prodded Michigan State to its eighth Final Four under Coach Tom Izzo because he knows exactly what Izzo wants and needs and the Winston who finished his freshman season with his head throbbing because of all the tongue-lashings he received?
“It’s like night and day,” Winston said.
What Capital One Arena hosted Sunday evening was the fourth thrilling region final of the weekend. None of them — not Virginia over Purdue, not Texas Tech over Gonzaga, not even Auburn over Kentucky — served as such a referendum on the best way to win a national championship as Michigan State over Duke.
This is so often called the “one-and-done era” because that’s how long players have to stay in college before entering the NBA draft. It’s most certainly not called the one-and-done era because of any sort of consistent championship-winning formula concocted during such a single season. Duke of 2018-19 is the latest example of why constructing a team primarily of freshmen, then doing it again the following year, is akin to rolling five dice and trying to get them all to come up the same, failing, then doing the same thing the next year. It can happen. It’s just not likely.
“It’s been a remarkable year for these young men,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I’m not sure another group will have it — a year with all of this.”
“All of this” — the fanfare and the fame — doesn’t pertain to Michigan State broadly or to Winston specifically. The guard from Detroit never was a threat to leave after his freshman year. He’s not a threat to leave now, even after his 20-point, 10-assist, one-turnover performance in the most important game of his career. What he is is grizzled in a way Williamson can’t be after just one season. What he is is wise in a way that Jones can’t fully understand after just one season. What he is is experienced in a way that matters to his younger teammates because he has been where they are now — and survived, then thrived.
“He was a freshman at one point, man,” said Spartans freshman Aaron Henry, an infamous target of Izzo’s public prodding. “It’s easy for freshmen to get lost a little bit. Cassius, how much he was gotten on as a freshman, he just shows why, when Coach gets on me the same way he used to get on him, it’s like he sees something in me that I could be a player of his caliber.”
Those are lessons Williamson and Reddish can’t learn from Duke’s current upperclassmen, because Duke’s current upperclassmen have never been — and will never be — the focus for the Blue Devils in their modern environment. The arc of a college star’s career is different in East Lansing than it is in Durham. At Michigan State, there’s more room for slow roasting than there is in Duke’s microwave.
“They don’t beat themselves,” Krzyzewski said. This was important for several reasons Sunday, when Duke committed 17 turnovers, many of them unforced errors. There was a time, Krzyzewski said, when the Blue Devils broke the huddle after a timeout with a plan — and then didn’t run anything resembling the play that was called. The result: turnover.
“They didn’t do that,” Krzyzewski said.
They didn’t do that, because Winston no longer allows it. The Spartans fans who rocked Capital One Arena at the buzzer have gotten to enjoy Winston’s development, which hasn’t always been easy.
“There’s two paces,” Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife said. “There’s Cassius’s pace, and then there’s Michigan State’s pace, and the two have formed this tumultuous marriage. . . . There were always bright spots, but for Cassius to put it all together the way he has, this is what’s supposed to happen when you come to a program like this. You’re supposed to trust the process.”
The process, at Duke, is so compressed that it almost doesn’t exist. That’s not to say Krzyzewski and his staff don’t coach their players hard and try to get them to improve. But coaching them hard and trying to get them to improve between October and March is different than between 2016 and 2019. Listening to Krzyzewski talk about Winston — “As good a player as we’ve played against” — it was hard not to wonder whether he didn’t long for a couple of guys whom he could develop the same way.
“With Winston, you have a player that can make the right play at the right time,” Krzyzewski said, “and he has tremendous poise.”
Duke, of course, could not make the right play at the right time. And in the end, it didn’t have that poise.
It all left Izzo beaming. “I think mentally we might be tougher than any team I’ve had,” he said. Left unsaid: You couldn’t possibly say that about a team that starts four freshmen, even extraordinary freshmen. The Spartans start two seniors — including Kenny Goins, who hit the game-winning three-pointer — a junior in Winston, a sophomore and a freshman. That matters.
We have, too, something of a trend. The NBA end of the one-and-done era is near, but what we have learned during it: Only two of the national champions crowned since it began in 2006 will have been propelled primarily by star freshmen — Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015. Want to win the whole thing? Build a team over time.
Sitting in the Michigan State locker room afterward, Winston could smile about what had been tough times — with Izzo, with the demands, with everything.
“We got a really good relationship now,” he said. “Just understand each other, understand what people want, what the team needs, all those type of things. . . . I know my spots.”
His spot, at the end of the game, was to dribble away from the basket, not toward it. His spot, when the horn sounded, was as a savvy and mature veteran who just upended the sport’s world, ended the comet-like Zion era and propelled his team into the Final Four.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.