For the first time this season, Cassius Winston’s presence was clearly missed.
The former Big Ten Player of the Year and Michigan State’s all-time assist leader was an instrumental playmaker during his four-year career at MSU, and replacing his production was always going to be one of the Spartans’ primary needs this season.
And despite the 6-0 nonconference start to the season, it was still clear MSU needs a go-to option like Winston late in games. That’s even more true lately.
On Dec. 20, there was the listless 79-65 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats that MSU head coach Tom Izzo called “one of the more inept performances of my 26 years.”
Then MSU blew a nine-point lead in the second half of Friday’s 85-76 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers, which was a showcase of MSU’s need for a playmaker like Winston to take over games. The Spartans converted only 5 of 19 shots and committed five turnovers over the last 13 minutes against the Badgers.
But sports bettors are still believing in the Spartans (6-2, 0-2 Big Ten). MSU opened as a 1-point favorite for tonight’s 8 p.m. EST matchup at Minnesota (8-1, 1-1), but the line moved into the Spartans’ favor to -2.5 as of Monday afternoon. MSU’s moneyline odds were -141 while Minnesota was at +120. The over/under was set at 153.
Joey Hauser was the only player MSU could rely on to score down the stretch against Wisconsin. The 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore transfer from Marquette recorded 16 of his team-high 25 points during the second half of his best offensive performance as a Spartan. His 37.5% rate from 3-point range and his ability to score in the post makes him one of the most versatile scoring options for MSU.
But most of Hauser’s scoring comes from catch-and-shoots, or off of pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop action. He can score in the post, too, but he’s not a traditional playmaker who breaks down a defense on the perimeter and creates. And that’s what MSU needs from its backcourt.
Rocket Watts, Joshua Langford and Aaron Henry are the primary candidates to facilitate and create on the perimeter. But all three were no-shows against Wisconsin (8-1, 2-0). They combined for just seven points, made only 3 of 16 shot attempts, turned it over four times and had just four assists in the second half against the Badgers.
Henry failed to use his athleticism to score at the rim, making only 2-of-8 shots in the second half. He was also continually careless with the ball, turning it over a career-high seven times.
Langford is one of the best midrange shooters on the team, but he could not regularly create separation against Wisconsin’s stifling defense. He shot 3-of-9 for the game.
Watts was never a factor, either. He shot 2-for-9 and had five points.
To produce late in games, MSU needs more from its backcourt. It may be too much to ask someone to solely produce in a similar fashion to Winston, but someone has to show signs of leading the offense in clutch moments.
After losing by 27 to Illinois on Dec. 15, Minnesota has reeled off two impressive wins. The Golden Gophers defeated previously unbeaten St. Louis, 90-82, before knocking off No. 4 Iowa 102-95 in overtime. Both wins came at home, where Minnesota is 8-0 this season.
Marcus Carr propelled the Golden Gophers past Iowa (7-2, 1-1), recording 30 points and eight assists including 6-of-13 shooting from 3-point range. Behind Iowa’s Luka Garza (leading the nation at 28.8 ppg), Carr is the second-highest scorer in the Big Ten and No. 3 nationally, averaging 24.6 points per game.