By John Fanta
Washington, DC — Tom Izzo is a man with great expectations. Sometimes, it even eats at the 24-year head coach.
“I’ve learned to manage expectations,” said Izzo. “And I always complain about it. I complain about our media having them. I complain about our fans having them. I complain about our alumni having them. And then I realize that my expectations are probably bigger than all the above.”
Yes, a classic Izzo line. But, there’s something deeper to it. Of course expectations surround one of college basketball’s powerhouses, a program which has made seven Final Four appearances in the last two decades. There’s pressure that comes with that. Well, maybe for Izzo and some Spartans, but not for Michigan State’s point guard. In fact, the outlier mentality that Cassius Winston possesses could be the key for the program to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
“He doesn’t see pressure,” said Izzo of his All-American, who leads Sparty with 18.9 points and 7.5 assists per game.
The ability to rise above any pressure was unleashed out of Winston especially when Michigan State lost Nick Ward to a broken hand on Feb. 17. With Ward back in the fold now, Sparty is past that adversity, and better off because of Winston’s boost in leadership.
“I said, ‘these other guys are going to be a little more nervous. You’re going to have to lead now and talk to them,” said Izzo. “I think he’s done a phenomenal job of that. The kid (Winston) has gone beyond where I thought he could go so far.”
Those are telling words from a man with such high expectations.
The spotlight is on Winston again Friday night, with another one of the nation’s best point guards meeting him for an Elite Eight ticket.
The hype surrounds Tremont Waters after the sophomore edged LSU past Maryland with a game-winning runner in Saturday’s Round of 32 thriller. LSU’s point guard counters Winston with 15.0 points to go with 5.9 assists per game.
“He does a good job of using his quickness and changing speeds,” said Winston when asked about Waters. “He stays poised and in control during the whole game.”
For a team that’s gone on this Big Dance run without head coach Will Wade, who’s suspended due to alleged FBI wiretaps that include the coach discussing a recruiting offer, the presence of Waters has been invaluable in LSU’s first Sweet 16 run in 13 years. That said, the sophomore had high praise for Michigan State’s engineer as well.
“He’s really good in transition,” said Waters of Winston. “Everything pretty much runs through him.”
So, these two are ready for a heavyweight bout. And of course, Izzo set high expectations, telling us all what we are hoping for on Friday night inside Capital One Arena.
“In the Super Bowl, you always look for good quarterbacks,” said Izzo. “We’ve got two great quarterbacks here, and I am looking forward to seeing how it works.”
The veteran head coach is unafraid to set the bar high for the point guard showdown, and Izzo set it even higher for his point guard in his closing remarks on Thursday afternoon.
“As far as his growth as a player and as a leader, it’s taken great, great strides,” said Izzo of Winston.
“I still think he has another level we’re going to keep pushing to.”
College Hoops Digest will have extensive coverage of the East Regional at Capital One Arena, with Josh Adams and John Fanta heading down to DC for ncaahoopsdigest.com. Follow on twitter @NCAAHoopsDigest and @John_Fanta.