Final Four 2019: Cassius Winston is chasing the throne on the way to becoming one of the all-time Michigan State greats

MINNEAPOLIS -- Before Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston could become one of the best players in college basketball, he needed to be broken.

The Spartans' First Team All-American has ambidextrously guided Michigan State to the 10th Final Four in school history. But Winston has become a deviation on expectation: he almost always plays better than you expect him to.

You don't see players built like him scraping the ceiling of college basketball's sprawling house of talent. 

He thrives on knack and instinct. You don't expect someone who dribbles with an offbeat droop to be a problem without a solution ... for the other team. Physically, Winston doesn't cut an impressive frame -- he hardly cuts at all -- but there is no denying his value and growth as a potential program legend. 

"He's evolving to one of the greatest that's played here," Spartans assistant coach Dane Fife said. "If you give him the slightest advantage, it's death for the opponent."

And he, Cassius Winston, from the west side of Detroit, who is the biggest factor in Saturday night's national semifinal between No. 2 MSU and No. 3 Texas Tech

"Look back at all my Final Four teams, we've had a high-IQ guy," Tom Izzo told CBS Sports. "Jason Richardson, Draymond Green, Denzel Valentine. Cassius doesn't take a backseat to any of them."

Added Spartans associate head coach Dwayne Stephens: "For me, it would be him and Draymond, one and two."

"For me, it would be him and Draymond, one and two."MSU assistant Dwayne Stephens

The Big Ten Player of the Year averages 18.9 points, 7.6 assists, 3.0 rebounds and shoots 40.4 percent from 3-point range. Those are benchmarks seldom hit by any player in Sparty history. If not for him, Michigan State almost certainly doesn't approach a Final Four, let alone make another one.

But there was a rough battle behind the scenes, and in the belly, to get here. Winston's come a long way from the chubby boy who was addicted to candy and other junk food for every pregame meal. 

"He was just squishy," Wendi Winston, Cassius' mom, told CBS Sports. "He works really hard at his physical development, and has had to, because he has terrible eating habits. Parents and fans would make sure there were Starbursts and Hot Cheetos available to him every game, that's how bad it was. There were candies -- Tootsie Frooties -- in his pocket."

Winston's a notoriously terrible morning person as well and had to be pulled out of bed by his father to get to practice throughout high school years. They'd be at the gym between 6:45 and 7 a.m. almost every day. Cassius needed that, because he was never even close to being the most adept athlete or physically fit player. 

"I was smart, that helped, and I worked hard," Winston said. "Me and my dad every day worked on skills, angles, jump shots, ball handling. He dragged me every time and I would hate it, but once I got there, I would take advantage of it."

Stephens had known Winston's high school coach at University of Detroit Jesuit High School long before Cassius enrolled there as a freshman. One day during Winston's freshman year, Stephens got a call from the coach about this paunchy 14-year-old. The coach thought he had a future high-level Division I player in his midst. As he's done for almost a decade, Winston hid in plain sight at first.

"I go to open gym, I'm watching them play, and I'm like, OK, where's the kid?" Stephens said. "That's when he was that pudgy, slow kid -- but getting stuff done. First time I take coach (Izzo) to see him, coach is like, 'Where is he?' Same deal. And now, here we are."

Winston grew into a four-star prospect in the class of 2016. Michigan State was on his trail early. The recruitment process was no automatic, even though Winston lived so close to East Lansing. 

"A mom who had gone through this process before told me to assume every coach was lying, not that they would, but to assume because if you did that it would force your as a parent to do your own due diligence," Wendi Winston said. "I think I've said to coaches, 'That's great, I know you're selling me on your school, but I don't really believe everything you're telling me -- only because I can't afford to." 

cassius-winston.jpg
Michigan State's Cassius Winston has answered every challenge Tom Izzo has thrown at him. USATSI

Michigan State won out because of its family environment. The Winstons were on a walk during lunch on Wayne State's campus when Cassius told them he'd made his choice. He enrolled in the same class as five-star athletic freak Miles Bridges, in addition to other coveted prospects Nick Ward and Josh Langford. Winston was somewhat overshadowed then, on an MSU team that merely managed a No. 9 seed. That freshman season seems like a long time ago now for Winston, though. Things are as good for him on the court now as they've ever been. 

But to get here was a rougher path than most realize.

Winston, who's whip-smart, had opportunities to play at Stanford and Harvard. Who turns down those opportunities. Winston, a child of Detroit, chose to stay close to home. He's the oldest of three boys and is extremely close with his little brothers, Zachary and Khy. 

"He is an amazing big brother," Wendi Winston said. "He's taken it seriously since Zachary was in his mother's belly. He's taken the role really seriously." 

He chose to stay close for his family and because he recognized the faults in his game. He lacked toughness, aggressiveness, defensive capability and a certain edge. No other coach drew him in like Izzo. 

"That's why I went to Michigan State, to get better at all of those areas," Winston told CBS Sports. 

He wanted to be better -- but didn't realize he'd need to be cracked open and reassembled to get to this point. His poor weight-room work ethic, his bad diet, his lack of discipline in the small stuff that's ordinary for most students but problematic for teenagers trying to turn into NBA players, set Winston back. 

"Coach Izzo likes to tell his recruits and his players, give me your goals, what you want, be selfish," Fife said. "But it's a be-careful-what-you-wish for. Because in Cassius' case, when he arrived, all those things you described, you don't have an NBA player, not remotely close. You couple that with the fact the point guard position at Michigan State is the most difficult position to play, by far, and yet, when you figure it out, you're a pro."

Winston's freshman season was not a failure in the eyes of most. He played a little more than 50 percent of the team's minutes and averaged 6.7 points and 5.2 assists. MSU personnel even showed Winston evidence of how he was trending along similar lines of many terrific previous point guards Izzo had coached. 

"If you give him the slightest advantage, it's death for the opponent."MSU assistant Dane Fife

But Winston was lost, frustrated and, after the end of that season, found himself turned upside down over what he thought he could be vs. what Izzo was asking him to be. The practices weren't easy and he was on the targeted end of some tough discussions. 

"I think I broke down a couple times," Winston said. "Freshman year was rough. I realized I needed to put in the work, to get in the gym, to change what was happening. It was frustrating."

There was a Winston family meeting to assess the entire situation. He never considered bailing on Michigan State; he just wanted to see what could be fixed and how that might happen.

"The first year was rough for everyone," Wendi Winston said. "Him adjusting to Izzo, even though Reginald (Winston's father) had asked him a thousand times if he could handle Izzo's passionate, fiery style. He'd never been coached like that before. Cassius said he could, thought he could. He felt like he was on the brunt end of everything. It was rough for him to figure out 'What do I need to do to be the player I need to become?'"

Izzo's coaching style embraces conflict and welcomes vocal feedback from his players. There is a lively give and take, which has been caught on camera hundreds of times throughout his career. But Winston was not wired to return serve on his coach. For Winston, there was no clapping back at his superiors. He had his shortcomings, but that was not one of them.

"He wasn't going to do that," Wendi Winston said. "Because if you do that in our house, you're gonna pick your ass up off the floor. That's just not going to happen." 

And so Winston was broken but resolved. He, his mother and his coaches all note how important his family and brothers are to him. But after his freshman year, Winston surprised everyone with a decision. 

"Everybody on the team went home for a month," Izzo said. "He (Winston) told me, 'Coach, I'm going home for three days and coming back.' I think that month after his freshman year put him on this trajectory."

Winston was back on campus and in the facilities every day. He got hooked on "Game of Thrones" -- his favorite character is Arya Stark -- that summer and found himself improving significantly. He'd work out, binge on the show, become infatuated with the workings of the plot and absorbed himself in hoops and Thrones. 

Sophomore year arrived. Winston was noticeably better in games, though there was still walls he would run up against in practices. Izzo still needed more. It still wasn't enough. 

"The line kept moving, Cassius kind of felt," Wendi Winston said.

And then at the end of last season, Winston committed entirely to becoming everything for Michigan State. He wouldn't just be the point guard, he would be the offense. He'd be indispensable. 

"Cassius said, 'I am going to produce more," his mother said. "That's my answer. If I produce more, he'll shut up. What he wants me to do on defense, what he wants me to do vocally, I'm trying and he's still yelling, I'm going to produce more."

Sure as hell, he did it. 

"I'm going to give him more reasons to be happy than to be mad," Winston said. 

The goals Winston wrote down for himself last year: win the Big Ten; be All-Big First Team; go to the Final Four; win the the Bob Cousy Award. 

All of them have been checked. 

Izzo said he's been as happy with this team, all things it's had to overcome to get to this Final Four, as any he's coached. Winston's thriving; he's as valuable as any player in college basketball. And when Michigan State upset Duke in the Elite Eight, Izzo found Winston's parents on the court in celebration afterward. 

"Well," Izzo said. "Was the freshman year worth it?!"

Wendi Winston wasn't having it.

"Worth it?" she said? "We still have two more wins to get." 

On Saturday night, two can whittle to one. Winston can take the next step toward Michigan State immortality. He's chasing his own throne in his own game -- a stark change from who he was just two years ago. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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