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Kyle Austin | MLive.com | January 18, 2019

Michigan State's Cassius Winston's recent play could make him a Big Ten Player of the Year contender

Andy Katz breaks down his bracket

LINCOLN, Neb. — Cassius Winston got onto the team plane from Penn State back to East Lansing on Sunday night and immediately pulled up the game film.

The Spartans' point guard had put together one of his worst performances of the year: an 11-point, 7-turnover day against the Nittany that stood out as an exception in an otherwise standout season.

The film session was the first of multiple throughout the week, as he understood just what went wrong and how to fix it. And as he did, his coach let him know that this was a critical point in his season.

Michigan State defeats Penn State

"You're going to be measured by how you bounce back," Tom Izzo told him.

As Winston warmed up on Thursday for that bounce-back effort at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Spartans associate coach D.J. Stephens told his fellow coaches he thought Winston looked as focused as he has all year.

And by the time tipoff came, there was little doubt that was true: Winston had seven points in less than four minutes to set the tone in a game he would control throughout.

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"I felt control of the game, playing in my pace," Winston said. "I was doing a good job getting the ball to my teammates."

Winston recorded a career-high 29 points to key the Spartans' 70-64 win over Nebraska on Thursday.

Michigan State gets win over Nebraska

Playing 39 minutes, Winston was 9-for-16 with six assists and four turnovers. On a night when the Spartans played shorthanded and Nebraska keyed in on stopping the Spartans' other star, Winston took the offensive mantle.

"Winston I thought was unbelievable from the start," Izzo said. "He did it offensively, he did it defensively."

The performance was the latest in a season that's seen Winston go from a third-team All-Big Ten selection to a frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year a third of the way through the conference season. Through 18 games, Winston is averaging 18.4 points and 7.2 assists per game while shooting better than 45 percent from 3-point range.

"He's my Big Ten Player of the Year right now, I would say so," Spartans freshman forward Aaron Henry said. "He's all of that right now, and I'm going to keep telling him that."

Henry has stepped into the starting lineup the last two games as Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens continue to miss time with injuries. Freshman Gabe Brown has also seen increased time off the bench.

But you'd hardly know that Michigan State had swapped two juniors for two freshmen in its rotation the way it's been scoring. That's a testament to Winston.

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"I know he's going to put me in the best position to score and put the team in the best position to win at all times," Henry said.

Winston said he's learned how each player is most effective and does his part to maximize his potential. He's also taken on part of Langford's role, coming off screens when McQuaid takes on the point guard role.

"Different guys do different things, so you've got to work the offense through how people play, peoples' strengths of things like that," Winston said.

Nebraska started the game by double-teaming Nick Ward as soon as he caught the ball, limiting him to two baskets in the first 17 minutes of the game.

Winston responded accordingly, taking five shots in the first five minutes and scoring 17 first-half points and a five-point Michigan State lead in the first half.

"My job on this team is to make plays, however that is, by assisting or making shots," Winston said. "I'm always out there aggressive, looking for my shot."

Some of his motivation for that, he said came from a desire to improve on his Sunday performance.

When Winston was a freshman or sophomore, Izzo said he would have been more worried about Winston's response to an off-game like Sunday's. His face isn't easy to read, but Izzo said he was confident his point guard was ready to respond this time around.

"You hope that guys realize their mental approach is just as good as their physical approach," Izzo said. "His mental approach was better."

This article is written by Kyle Austin from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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