WASHINGTON—It's easy to draw parallels between Tre Jones and Cassius Winston. The two point guards were both top-50 recruits in their respective classes, each is the engine for their team's offense and, in their own ways, Jones and Winston are both leaders.
But the similarities just about end there.
Jones is just a freshman, 19 years old and 37 games into his collegiate career. The Apple Valley, Minn., native is as elite a defender as any in the nation, yet until Friday night, had never scored more than 18 points in a single game.
Winston, a junior, is averaging more than that this season and has shot better than 43 percent from deep in his career, on his way to 2018-19 Big Ten Player of the Year honors.
For all he's been through, however, he and Jones share one more thing in common: Neither has made it to the Elite Eight.
"He has an extremely high basketball IQ," Jones said of Winston. "[I need to] just try to make it difficult on him the entire game. You’ve got to never let him get easy looks, but also make it difficult on him to set his teammates up because they rely on him so much."
For both Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, there are few relationships more important than the one they share with their floor general. In recent years, though, Krzyzewski hasn't had "that guy."
After Jones' brother, Tyus, led the Blue Devils to the 2015 national title, Duke has gone through several different ball-handlers. Derryck Thornton struggled to run the show in 2015-16 before transferring to Southern California. In 2016-17, Frank Jackson and Grayson Allen shared point guard duties, but neither was a natural fit for the role.
Last year, Trevon Duval did his best, but even then, things still didn't feel settled at the spot.
There's a comfort with Jones running the show, and the connection between player and coach has continued to evolve.
"He's somebody we haven't had for a while," Krzyzewski said. "He can make in-game adjustments that the coach would want to make while the game is going on. They just understand the game and they understand their team and their coaching staff where they can make real time adjustments.
"It's a huge advantage. Michigan State has it with Winston, and we have it with Tre."
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The difference is that Winston and Izzo have grown together over the span of years. With Krzyzewski and Jones, it's been a matter of months.
In either case, it's all about trust.
"We’ve just grown closer and closer, off the court and on the court. His trust in me has never faded and it’s only gotten stronger since Day 1," Jones said. "The way we talk the game and think the game has grown together even more.... Whether he’s telling me he has confidence in me or when I feel a read and tell him about it, he lets me go with it and lets me make calls at times as well."
Izzo showed his trust in Winston after forward Nick Ward went down with a hairline fracture in his left hand just more than a month ago. After a meeting, Winston was added as an additional Spartan captain.
"We voted for captains early in the year, and it was [Matt] McQuaid and Josh Langford," Izzo said Thursday. "And Cash is one of those leaders that he leads by example, which I think is really good. I've always enjoyed people that led by dragging other people with them.... When we lost Nick and I told Cassius that next morning, 'Now, I need you to [step up] because you have the experience."
Since that point, Winston has played fewer than 30 minutes just twice and he's scored in double figures all but once.
"[Coach] puts the ball in my hands and allows me to make plays," Winston said when about his relationship with Izzo. "It's grown over time just learning each other—him learning me, me learning him, and me getting better helped with that, too."
If it comes down the wire again for the Blue Devils, Jones probably won't be the one with the ball. Despite knocking down a career-best five 3-pointers against Virginia Tech, Duke's freshman point guard has plenty of scorers around him.
Still, Tre, like Tyus four seasons ago, has found a way to leave his stamp on the Blue Devils come March.
"They're big-time moment players," Krzyzewski said of the Jones brothers. "They're not afraid of the moment. They react really well. And in the history of our program there's not been anybody who has been any better in the last couple minutes of a game in one season than Tyus was.... [But Tre is] as important a player as we have."