Michigan State senior point guard Cassius Winston was last season’s Big Ten men’s basketball Player of the Year.
Iowa junior center Luka Garza appears to be the overwhelming favorite to get that honor this season.
If Winston has received any sort of memo that he’s no longer the king of the conference, he hasn’t played like it. He averages 18.3 points and 5.7 assists for a team that, like Iowa, is 10-6 and tied for second place in the Big Ten.
Tuesday night at MSU’s Breslin Center, the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes will have their hands full trying to slow Winston and the No. 24 Spartans. Last season, Winston totaled 31 points and 19 assists in a pair of wins over Iowa.
He’s done it to everybody in the Big Ten, repeatedly, as his career sums of 1,888 points and a conference-best 862 assists attest.
“I think when you have somebody who has the ball and is asked to do all what he does and consistently performs when teams are focused on stopping him, I think that’s what’s impressive,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Monday.
Consistency. That, said McCaffery, is what separates Winston from the pack. Garza, too.
“A lot of guys do great things some of the time, most of the time, but not usually all of the time,” McCaffery said. “Because there are pretty good coaches in this league and pretty good players really trying hard not to make that happen.”
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Winston was a consensus first-team preseason All-American because of all the winning Michigan State has done with him, because of his numbers, and because he shows up every game. He has scored in double figures in all but one Big Ten game and has made at least three 3-pointers in seven of the last nine.
“He is an incredibly calming influence on this team and any team he’s been part of,” said McCaffery.
“He knows when to go, he knows when to wait. You need a 3, he makes a 3. If you need him to find somebody, he finds somebody. He’ll make defensive plays. He kind of plays at his pace and he’s a fierce competitor.”
While Winston got the preseason accolades, Garza wasn’t even on the 10-player preseason All-Big Ten team voted on by media.
But here is Garza, with a dozen consecutive games of at least 21 points. That’s the consistency McCaffery touts.
In Big Ten road games, Garza is averaging a whopping 28.8 points. All those hostile environments against competitive teams, and he not only averages nearly 30 points but has made 57.2 percent (91-of-159) of his field goal attempts in those games.
Many a national basketball commentator have called Garza the man to beat for National Player of the Year, or at least one of the few. He has strong competition in Dayton center Obi Toppin, Seton Hall guard Myles Powell, and national scoring leader Markus Howard of Marquette, among others. Garza is fourth nationally in scoring.
This is the time of season when many programs start ramping up their pitches to media people about players to consider for postseason awards.
“I’ll talk about Luka to anybody who asks a question,” McCaffery said.
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“I think it’s important that our institution promotes him to a certain point because that’s what everybody does. I think it’s important just to make people aware of some amazing statistics.
“I love the kid, I love talking about him and letting people know who he is.”
Garza is averaging 26.6 points in Big Ten games. No one has averaged more than 21.6 since 2000, and no one has topped 26.6 since Purdue’s Glenn Robinson (31.1) in 1994.
“When you think about the numbers he’s putting up, the highest points per game in Big Ten play (at Iowa) in 49 years,” McCaffery said, “those kinds of things get your attention. Those are staggering numbers.”
So here they meet in East Lansing, the reigning and future league Player of the Year. What’s certain is Garza must be his usual self and his teammates must provide a lot of help if Iowa is to avoid defeat. Because the 6-foot-1 Winston has to be contained, and that’s one thing the Hawkeyes can’t put on the shoulders of the 6-11 Garza.
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