Photo: 1) Cassius Winston; 2) Tre Jones
The NBA early entry withdrawal deadline spawned a spate of stories projecting college teams as winners and losers. They were based on players staying in school and those gone to the NBA – actually, overseas or to the G-League for most of them.
Those evaluations were a little late.
The most important of these stories actually played out in April when two high-profile point guards revealed themselves as the smartest among those talents with remaining eligibility.
Michigan State’s Cassius Winston confirmed he’s returning for his senior year on April 19, just two weeks after the Spartans’ season ended in the Final Four semifinals with a loss to eventual NCAA runner-up Texas Tech.
Duke’s Tre Jones announced he’s coming back for his sophomore year on April 8, eight days after the Blue Devils’ season ended in a loss to Michigan State in the NCAA East Regional final in Washington, D.C.
Both dream of playing in the NBA, but both also realized their games aren’t ready. They also are wise enough to recognize their Hall-of-Fame coach -- Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski – knew their weak spots to address better than anyone. Remember a year ago when Nick Ward went to the NBA tryouts and heard the same things from NBA coaches and scouts Izzo had been telling him all season?
Sure, an NBA coach at a tryout camp can tell them what they need to work on to make it in the NBA. But their respective coach could spend more time with them and better explain with details how to improve.
Winston and Jones weren’t really a head-to-head matchup when Winston finished with 20 points and 10 assists and Jones only four points in Michigan State’s 68-67 victory over Duke. But if the schools meet again in a 2020 NCAA Tournament showdown, a head-to-head showdown is not only more likely it will probably be the focus of attention and a deciding factor.
Winston, a 6-foot-1, 185-pounder, will again run the show for a Michigan State lineup that returns plenty of experience. Among starters, Xavier Tillman returns inside as a junior; Joshua Langford, a third-year starter until an injury ended his season on Dec. 31, is back as a senior; Aaron Henry returns as a sophomore swingman.
But WInston needs to come back better able to handle a physical, attacking defense Texas Tech threw at him -- a style he'll see nightly in the NBA. He managed 16 points, but he was 4-of-16 from the field and had only two assists with four turnovers.
Jones (6-2, 183) will have the opportunity to run the offense more than he did a year ago. Last year he deferred too much to three projected NBA lottery pick one-and-done freshmen: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.
Coach K’s NBA-styled “position-less basketball” too often resulted in one-on-one play from Barrett and Reddish, placing Jones in bystander situation. Williamson had his one-on-one moments, too, but they were usually a result of the Blue Devils’ needing a bail out. He bulldozed his way to the basket Charles Barkley-like with the refs choking on their whistles.
Against Michigan State, Jones played 40 minutes, but he only took five shots, hitting two, to go with five assists. He didn't attempt a free throw.
With a new-look Jones dictating the offensive flow in 2019-20, the Blue Devils shouldn’t be so herky-jerky and inconsistent with one-on-one play and errant three-point shooting.
Jones will again be surrounded by potential NBA one-and-dones. There are three incoming 5-star talents: Vernon Carey, a 6-foot-11, 275-pound center; Wendell Moore, a 6-4 forward; and Matthew Hurt, a 6-9 forward. The fourth signed prospect is four-star guard Cassius Stanley (6-5). The other returning veterans are Javin DeLaurier (6-10) as a senior, Jack White (6-7) as a senior and Alex O'Connell (6-6) as a junior.
Similar to Michigan State's Ward, Duke's Marques Bolden is delusional about his pro future. They opted to stay in the draft, even though neither one is projected as a draft pick.
But even without Bolden inside, Jones as a sophomore is the veteran with leadership in his genes (his brother Tyus was the point guard on Duke's 2015 NCAA title team). The incoming freshmen will look to him more than Barrett and Reddish did. Diminished "position-less" basketball can help Duke with more consistent team play next play. Duke played out its 2018-19 season in reverse last year. The Blue Devils started out the season looking like an NBA team the way they blew out Kentucky in the season opener, 118-84. But as the season progressed and they felt comfortable in their roles, those roles were individually oriented.
A Michigan State/Winston and Duke/Jones showdown has the potential to top last year’s dramatic game, with Winston stronger than a year ago and Jones not only improved but more importantly more involved.
They're smart enough to know another shot at an NCAA title is worth taking and they'll have a better chance at an NBA career in 2020.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."