How Cassius Winston Kept A Teammate Afloat And Saved His Coach From Himself

The Big Ten Player of the Year means so much more than that to MSU.

Will Burchfield
March 21, 2019 - 9:33 pm
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Des Moines, Iowa -- Cassius Winston knew how Aaron Henry was feeling, understood what he was thinking. Two years ago, Winston was in the same spot, a freshman tasked with carrying a heavy load in the NCAA Tournament. The lights are brighter. The stakes are higher. The crowd is loud and not so friendly. It's unlike anything a first-timer has experienced in his basketball career. 

Michigan State was in a dog-fight with Bradley early in the second half, a dog-fight the two-seed hadn't bargained for, and now Henry was taking an earful from Izzo for a couple careless plays on defense. One time Henry lost his man in the half-court, leading to an open three. Another time he jogged back in transition, allowing an easy bucket. 

These are the kind of mistakes that derail a team with national championship aspirations. 

Izzo met Henry near midcourt as he jogged off the floor during a timeout, grabbed him briefly by the arm to lead him toward the bench and then unloaded. The veins in Izzo's neck were bursting. His finger was soon in Henry's face. It was at that moment, as Henry turned his palms in the air, that Winston stepped between the two.

And this is why the Big Ten Player of the Year means so much more than that to the Spartans. 

Winston put his hands on Izzo's shoulders to calm him down, then turned back toward Henry, held him by the waist and said what needed to be said.

"I just felt at that moment, I could get the message to him better than Coach. I know what it feels like to be in his shoes. There’s so much probably going through his head, that the yelling approach just wouldn’t work at that moment. So I asked Coach, 'What do you want me to tell him, and I can get that message to him,'" Winston said. 

The message was simple, and Izzo was right. So Winston calmly relayed it to Henry. 

"It was about him jogging back on defense and just looking lackadaisical out there, which he was at some points," Winston said. "I feel like I could come to him as my brother and tell him that." 

Michigan State needs Henry badly in this tournament, now more than ever with Kyle Ahrens sidelined. For much of Thursday afternoon he was missing. When he stood out, it was for the wrong reasons. The turnovers were frequent and foolish. The mammoth missed dunk – well, Henry and his teammates can laugh about it now.

Trailing by one with a little over seven minutes to go and staring another first-round meltdown in the face, the Spartans went on a 22-10 run to close out the game. Winston scored eight of those points, finishing with a game-high 26. Henry, for his part, hit one big shot and then sunk two key free throws to help his team – and his coach – avert disaster.

A crowd immediately formed around his stall when the media poured into the locker room after the game, and it didn’t take long for the questions about Izzo to begin.

Tom came at you pretty hard at one point. What was that about?

“Which one?” Henry asked. “Which time?

The crowd around him chuckled, as if there could be any doubt. The fact that Henry was serious underscores how frequently Izzo gets into his players, yes, but also how a moment viewed from the outside can be churned into something more than it is. What appears vicious and cruel can feel very much routine for those involved.

Maybe that’s a bad thing, that a coach ranting and raving at a freshman can be shrugged off as normal. But his is how Izzo coaches, and he coaches this way because he believes his players can handle it. He believes, and probably justly so, that he has built up enough trust with them off the court to sometimes come after them on it.

“It’s okay,” said Henry. “He’s going to yell. That’s what he does. You gotta accept it, listen to what he’s saying and just apply it to the game. You can’t listen to how he says it, but what he says.

He added, “Just be a basketball player and go respond.”

And to be fair, this blow-up was a little different.

“I mean, it’s been a minute since he chewed me out like that, because I haven’t played this bad in a while,” Henry said. “Once in every blue moon do I play that bad.”

It didn’t get better for Henry out of the timeout, not right away. Izzo threw him right back on the floor and watched him commit a few more turnovers and then bungle that dunk. But Henry dug in on defense, which is where he can always make an impact, and grabbed a couple rebounds. Then, with Michigan State looking to pull away inside three minutes remaining, Izzo called a play for his unfazed freshman.

And the freshman delivered, taking his man to the post and getting one to fall. Henry wound up playing all 20 minutes in the second half. Izzo, for all of his anger during a 30-second timeout, never lost faith in a young player and the larger plan. 

“He’s not going to take me out because he knows what I can do and what I provide for this team,” Henry said. “When I mess up he knows I’m going to make up for it somehow.”

Izzo, like Henry, heard plenty about the moment afterward. By then it had gone viral. Observers not attuned to his…methods...were shocked he would berate a player to the point that another had to intervene. Izzo was asked about it at the podium, then asked about it again in a scrum outside Michigan State’s locker room. After the fourth or fifth question on the matter, he snapped.

“What is wrong with challenging a kid that made some mistakes?” he asked, his voice high-pitched and thin in exasperation.

In Izzo's mind, he wasn’t “coming after” Henry, as the phrase goes. He was holding him accountable for his mistakes, and demanding more from him at a time when there’s no longer room for error. Henry has become a huge piece of the puzzle for Michigan State, and a player of that stature is liable to catch a lashing from his coach when he’s not locked in.

“If it’s effort-related things,” Izzo said with a nod. “If it’s effort-related things. The other side of that coin is, there must be a lot of talks between the head coach and the player over a lot of time, because we turned right around and went to him in the post and he responded. So maybe you should look a little deeper into, what does it take?”

He added later, “You gotta have a feel for your team, and the only way you have a feel for your team is if you spend time with them. And nobody spends more time with them than I do. Nobody.”

While all that’s true, it’s not unfair to say that Izzo, in this particular moment, may have miscalculated. There’s a reason that Winston intervened. And that’s what makes a great team a strong unit, one leader complementing another. For all of Izzo’s fire and fury, in which the Spartans are no doubt molded, it's Winston’s calm and cool that keeps everything balanced.   

During a huddle toward the end of the game, with Michigan State now finally in the clear, Winston pulled Henry aside and talked to him again. He wanted to make sure the freshman understood his earlier mistakes, because he can’t keep making them if the Spartans want to make something of March. It was about the missed assignment on defense.

“The coaches told us who was covering who, so everybody else knew who they had and he was just, I don’t know, maybe caught in a daze or something like that,” Winston said. “I was like, ‘At the end of the day, the coaches did tell us, so this is your fault. And it’s okay, we got lucky. But going forward you gotta handle things on your end, and we’re going to have your back.’”

This is all very new for Henry. On top of morphing into a crucial player suddenly logging 30 minutes a night, he’s diving into his first NCAA Tournament. This is the deep end. On Thursday afternoon he couldn’t touch the bottom. Just when it looked like his head was dipping under, there was Winston, throwing out his hand.

“It’s kudos to him for just stepping up for me and looking out for me, knowing that I’m a freshman and I’m going to go through things like that,” Henry said.

Let's be clear, it's not all hugs and kisses and pats on the back. These guys are brothers; Winston said so himself. And what kind of older brother would Winston be if he didn’t razz Henry for that botched dunk that ended up five rows deep in the crowd.

“Did y’all ask him about it?!” Winston asked a crowd of reporters, his eyes lighting up.

They had, and one of them relayed Henry’s rueful response: I don’t know what happened, man.

Winston chortled in delight, eager to pile on. This time, Henry will have no choice but to take it.