EAST LANSING, Mich. -- About 80 minutes before tip-off Sunday against Michigan, Michigan State guard Cassius Winston sat on the bench after some pregame shooting when a team manager approached him. Usually they'll have conversations about anything and everything, but on Sunday, he was asked something more specific.
"What's the most points you've ever scored?"
Winston had come off three straight 21-point games, so it was logical. Winston's previous high was 29, and when the manager told him he might hit a new mark against the Wolverines, Winston laughed and said, "We'll see."
Nearly four hours later, Winston chuckled again. Sitting inside the Breslin Center locker room after the No. 14 Spartans defeated the No. 12 Wolverines 87-69, the whole thing felt a little prophetic. For the first time in his career, he scored 32 points on a day in which he dominated the Wolverines from the opening tip, looking very much like the national player of the year candidate he is.
"We were just kind of talking, casually, about the game," Winston said. "How it's going to be packed. Then he asked me, 'What's the most points you scored?' That's just how it happened."
Winston leaned back and smiled after that. How it happened, though, was almost anticlimactic. Late in the second half, Winston made one simple free throw for his 30th point of the day, breaking his previous career high.
But after all the other plays he made earlier, that easy shot just didn't seem to fit. He weaved through the Michigan defense with ease, often coming off screens to bury jump shots and then dribbled the ball in and out of the Wolverines' defense to find a sliver of room to shoot.
It was all part of a performance in which Michigan (10-4, 1-2 Big Ten) couldn't handle the senior, who was en route to his 12th double-digit game of the season and 82nd of his career. Winston also had nine assists while shooting 11-of-19 from the floor.
It was reminiscent of his 29-point outing against Nebraska on Jan. 17, 2019, his previous career best. It marked the first 30-plus game for a Michigan State player against Michigan since Charlie Bell on March 4, 2000.
On Sunday, with 5:56 left, Winston snuck up on Michigan center Jon Teske, who led Michigan with 15 points, reaching his hand out to poke the ball away. Seconds later, he laid the ball in for a 75-63 lead, punctuating his virtuoso night and tying his record.
Winston had 16 points at halftime, two of which came when he drove the lane, pulled all the way out to the left baseline near the 3-point line, and then drove the baseline, finishing with an up-and-under layup to give the No. 14 Spartans (12-3, 4-0) a 34-26 lead.
"It's all about feel," Winston said. "I'm a guy that feel, my rhythm, getting to my spots, how much I got to struggle to get to my spots, how the ball feels coming out of my hand, all that type of stuff and [Sunday], everything just felt kind of perfect."
It's days like this where it's sometimes tough for his Michigan State teammates to not just sit back and watch. Sophomore Aaron Henry said there were times where he would be in his spot on the floor, ready to cut or roll or do something and he'd look up and see Winston working over Michigan. And it left Henry's eyes "glued" on the point guard.
"The consistency he shows with each play, he makes the proper read, takes the proper shot," Henry said. "Nothing is forced. Not many people can do that. Sometimes you get those one-generational talents that are huge and can just shoot the ball and shoot over people and things are forced with them and they can still make it.
"[Winston's] not the biggest guy, the most athletic. He just makes the right play. He's very intelligent and you got to give him a lot of credit for that. That's nothing given. That's earned."
By the time part of the crowd at the Breslin Center had left the building with 1:43 left, the remaining fans were chanting "M-V-P" with Winston at the free throw line, scoring his 30th point. They would continue that chant whenever he touched the ball.
Winston knew he had the mark by then.
"I looked at the JumboTron, just seeing all the scores and I saw he had, like, 30, and I was like, 'Cash, Cash,'" said junior forward Xavier Tillman, who had 20 points, one off his career high. "He said, 'I know. I know. I looked at it.'"
Winston's most impressive buckets were two that didn't count. A falling-down 3-pointer on the wing with 13:04 remaining would have tied his career high, but was nullified because Michigan coach Juwan Howard received a technical foul. Winston made one of those two ensuing free throws.
An acrobatic layup, while driving down the lane on a fast break, would have broken his career high, but he was fouled just before the shot, leading him to the line to set the mark.
After, Winston laughed when he was told the falling-down 3 would have tied the mark -- he said he heard the whistle before he shot it and knew the play was dead -- but that's just where his mind was Sunday. He was making everything, leaving Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to call his 6-foot-1 star point guard "unbelievable."
He might have been more than that Sunday. Against the Wolverines, he was close to unstoppable.
"Cassius is superb, [a] phenomenal player," Howard said. "He does an excellent job of reading whatever defense you throw at him. He's just elite level. It's that simple."