EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Cassius Winston smoothly dribbling in and out of traffic, distributing the ball and making jump shots. Xavier Tillman controlling the interior on both ends of the court.
This is why Michigan State was the nation’s top-ranked team at the beginning of the season.
It took a little while, but the Spartans are finally on a bit of a roll.
“We had a couple of slip-ups at the beginning of the season, but to keep battling and be on an upward trend shows us we’re fighters,” Winston said. “That’s all you can ask for in a conference like this.”
Winston was simply sensational Sunday, scoring 32 points with nine assists to lift Michigan State over rival Michigan 87-69. On Monday, the Spartans moved up six spots to No. 8 in the AP poll. Michigan moved down seven spots to No. 19.
It was another victory for Michigan State over its rival. The Spartans beat the Wolverines three times last season and eventually reached the Final Four. Winston’s return was a big reason Michigan State was No. 1 in the preseason poll.
“I’ve got the most unselfish superstar maybe ever, a guy who can score that many points and still be as unselfish as he is,” coach Tom Izzo said. “That makes it easier on the coach and easier on the players. I mean they pull for him because they love him and they appreciate him, not because he’s the best player.”
The Spartans, however, have not had an easy season so far. Joshua Langford hasn’t played because of foot problems, and he eventually had season-ending surgery. Michigan State lost its opener to Kentucky, and then the team was shaken by the death of Winston’s brother in November.
Losses to Virginia Tech and Duke — the latter of which was a double-digit defeat at home — dropped the Spartans’ record to a very ordinary 5-3, but they haven’t lost since, and now they’re the only Big Ten team without a defeat in conference play.
Michigan State began this calendar year with a 76-56 win over Illinois, and followed that with the victory over Michigan. Winston was brilliant against the Wolverines, and Tillman had 20 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. Nobody else scored more than eight points for the Spartans, but they shot 53% from the field and went 7 of 15 from 3-point range.
“Two months ago, I thought we would be probably where we are now, then,” Izzo said. “We were disjointed and we were just battling and I said then that if you can make it through something like this, sometimes it bonds a team.”
Izzo warned against getting too carried away with the impressive start to conference play. The only road game Michigan State has played in league play was against last-place Northwestern, and that was just a five-point win.
The convincing victories over Illinois and Michigan were at home, and this week the Spartans will stay in East Lansing when they host Minnesota on Thursday night.
As good as the Spartans may feel after shining against Michigan, it’s still early.
“It’s a great matchup and always a great win for us, but it’s not the end of anything,” Winston said. “I think we play them again.”
That will be Feb. 8 in Ann Arbor. Michigan State will try for its fifth straight win over the Wolverines.
“We won three last year and we kept the chip on our shoulder and I thought the Duke game maybe we didn’t keep the chip on our shoulder,” Izzo said. “That’s how you grow as the season goes on. You learn from your mistakes and you try to make adjustments to do some things.”