West Lafayette, Ind. — Cassius Winston heard the chants from the Mackey Arena crowd in the second half Sunday afternoon.
As the Michigan State junior stepped to the free-throw line, the 13,000-plus decked out in gold and black serenaded Winston with “over-rated.” Over and over again, they got in Winston’s ear as he proceeded to miss the first free throw and then the second.
The home crowd was delirious. The Boilermakers were rolling — they eventually held on for a 73-63 win after withstanding a furious Michigan State rally — and they loved letting Winston hear about it, just as the Breslin Center crowd did to Purdue’s Carsen Edwards earlier in the month with the Boilermakers star struggled to a 3-for-16 shooting night in Michigan State’s 18-point win.
“Yeah, I heard it,” Winston said, laughing. “I missed two free throws. It was crazy. I heard it. It was funny. I never thought I’d be in the position to be chanted at like that.”
While it first seemed like the crowd was simply getting on the fact the No. 6 team in the country was getting beat by more than 20 points, a closer examination showed it was likely about the battle for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Edwards is the conference’s leading scorer at better than 24 points a game, but he’s struggled hitting shots in both meetings against MSU. At the Breslin Center, the crowd gave him the same chant. Meanwhile, Winston has been on fire, leading the Spartans in scoring and leading the Big Ten in assists while remaining one of the best 3-point shooters in the Big Ten.
Throw in Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and it’s a healthy debate over who is the conference’s best player, though Michigan State coach Tom Izzo hinted at who he thinks stands alone.
“If Cassius didn’t prove …” Izzo said, halting himself. “I’m loving Edwards, but Cassius put us on his back. I guess both players are very deserving of being up for what they’re up for.”
Winston was the catalyst to Michigan State nearly erasing a 23-point deficit in the second half. His four-point play ignited a 14-0 run and he scored 16 of his 23 points in the second half while also handing out eight assists and playing all but 1 minute, 11 seconds.
“He’s the difference in those runs,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Winston. “They get down six or get down 20 and they have you right where they want you. So, yeah, you’re nervous the whole damn time. I was nervous until it was 30 seconds.”
Winston, for his part, wasn’t jumping into the debate. With 10 more games to go in the Big Ten race, his focus was more on getting the team back on track.
“We’re still at the top of the conference, one of the power teams,” Winston said. “We dropped the ball in this one but there are a lot of things we can get better at. A lot of little things we can fix.”
MSU’s Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins talk about the loss at Purdue.
The Detroit News
While junior guard Joshua Langford missed his eighth straight game with an ankle injury, fellow junior guard Kyle Ahrens made the trip and dressed but did not play after aggravating his back injury in Thursday’s win over Iowa.
“He tried to suit up in an emergency, but I wasn’t gonna do that to him,” Izzo said.
The result was a continued reliance on freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown. Neither fared well as Henry had four points and four rebounds in almost 30 minutes while Brown played just 12:16 and had two points and one rebound.
“My freshmen needed diapers today,” Izzo said. “It was one of those days I knew they were gonna get indoctrinated.”
Henry had a missed dunk late in the second half that could have changed MSU’s rally even more. But while Izzo wondered if his freshmen wilted in the hostile environment, Henry was making no excuses.
“I don’t think the venue was an issue at all,” Henry said. “Don’t get me wrong, they were loud but when two guys are hurt like that and he puts me in the starting lineup he expects more things from me and I didn’t produce.”
Michigan State was held to 19 first-half points. It was the first time the Spartans had failed to score 20 points in a half since Dec. 30, 2014, when they had 14 points against Maryland.
… Michigan State missed a chance to have its best start in Big Ten history. It never opened conference play 10-0, however, it’s 9-0 start matched a program best established in 2009-10.