TULSA, Okla. — Cassius Winston cocked his head, raised his eyebrows and chuckled in the BOK Center locker room before open practice on Thursday.
The Michigan State freshman point guard had just heard the comparison Miami coach Jim Larrañaga had made between him and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash. Winston tried to process the compliment.
“That’s a huge comparison — Steve Nash,” Winston said. “I’ve got no words to explain that. I don’t know where he got that one from. I don’t even know what to say to that one. Thank you, I’d say.”
The comparison was a nod to Winston’s vision and IQ on the floor. In his first year of college basketball, he is second in the Big Ten with 5.1 assists per game and seems to have a knack for finding open teammates.
“It’s one of those things that I was definitely gifted with,” he said. “With any gift, you still have to work on it so it’s been a lot of me talking to coach, me talking to different players, me watching film that helped me just grow that ability.”
Michigan State’s performance against Miami in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night will hinge on point guard play. The Hurricanes play tough halfcourt defense, and the Spartans need to be able to break them down or beat them down the floor.
Winston tends to dish out fewer assists and commit more turnovers in losses. And, as you might expect from a freshman, he tends to perform much better at home than on the road.
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Michigan State will need him at his best. When he’s on, Winston can put defenders on their heels in the halfcourt and deliver pinpoint passes to streaking big men on the break. Miami has been emphasizing Michigan State’s “5-second layups” on the break and wants to prevent them. That’s Winston’s bread and butter.
Junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn also concerns Miami with his ability to create quick and easy buckets. Nairn uses his speed to beat defenders for layups, drawing a comparison from Larrañaga to Syracuse’s John Gillon.
Against a Hurricanes team that averages 67.0 possessions per game (329th in the country), Nairn could speed things up.
“It’s hard to control the tempo,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Thursday. “I compare them a little bit to Wisconsin of old days, and that’s not a comparison because Miami will run. They’re most athletic. But [Nairn] has the ability to control tempo, and we’d like the tempo to be high. Tum brings that.”
Nairn never has wowed with his stats. In 97 career games, he has scored in double figures five times and posted 10-plus assists once. Winston already has bested both of those marks.
Where Nairn thrives — controlling the pace of the game — doesn’t show up in the box score, but that doesn’t make it less important. And as one of two healthy, active players (along with Alvin Ellis III) to have played in Michigan State’s 2015 Final Four run, he knows what this time of year requires.
“It’s one-and-done time now,” he said Thursday. “You’ve got to do everything you can to put yourself in position to get wins at this level at this time of the year. It’s a special thing.”