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State of Siege Michigan State overcame a nearly devastating injury to its leader to conquer Florida's vaunted pressure defense and win the national title

April 10, 2000
April 10, 2000

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April 10, 2000

State of Siege Michigan State overcame a nearly devastating injury to its leader to conquer Florida's vaunted pressure defense and win the national title

Up in the stands, the sign read TONIGHT WE'RE GONNA PARTY LIKE
IT'S 1979--a fan's reference to Michigan State's long-ago NCAA
championship. Down on the floor, index fingers bobbed high above
a scrum of green and white.

This is an article from the April 10, 2000 issue Original Layout

There's a more contemporary gesture, though, that is just right
for the team that gave Michigan State another NCAA title, its
first since Magic Johnson's moment 21 years ago. To signify the
Spartans' 89-76 defeat of Florida, we should raise a pinkie to
the edge of the mouth, in the "You complete me" sign popularized
by the Austin Powers movie The Spy Who Shagged Me. For in the
RCA Dome in Indianapolis on Monday night, college basketball
crowned a champion of consummate completeness. Michigan State
won its championship with a lineup rich in juniors and seniors,
carefully assembled and mindful of their moment. The Spartans
had solved one of the nation's best zones to beat Syracuse in
the Midwest Regional semifinals. They had subdued a superb
individual star, Marcus Fizer of Iowa State, in the regional
final. And then they passed the most daunting possible test of
versatility in Indy, first outplodding Wisconsin, then
outsprinting the Gators. "Like beating Randy Jones one night,"
said one courtside wag in admiration, "and beating Randy Johnson
the next."

Michigan State finished its work after effectively losing the
Final Four's Most Outstanding Player for most of the second half
of the title game. Mateen Cleaves is a leader, a defender, a
passer, a shooter, in that order. Cleaves is also a misnomer,
for he unites, adheres--completes. "Cleaves didn't get to the
rim a whole lot," said Florida forward Mike Miller of the
Spartans' point guard, whose 18 points included three
three-pointers. "But when he's knocking down shots, which is
about the third-best thing he does, he's something."

With guard Charlie Bell and forward Morris Peterson, Cleaves is
one of the Flintstones, the matched set of Spartans starters
from the basketball badlands of Flint. Michigan State's very
first possession of the title game augured what would come, and
it was a Flintstones special: Cleaves passing to Peterson, who
left a jump shot short, only to watch Bell emerge in traffic to
spear the ball for a tip-in. Finishing what it starts: That's
what a complete team does. Or as Bell put it last week,
describing the extremes of what his team could do: "We can slow
it down, get offensive rebounds and hurt people, or run with the
best of 'em."

"They are good," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said before the
Badgers' semifinal with the Spartans. "They are tough. They are
sound. They are as complete as I can imagine a team can be."

Michigan State's fourth meeting with Wisconsin this season
proved anew the adage, Familiarity breeds contemptible
basketball. With the Spartans scrambling over every screen and
laying a body on each posted-up Badger, Wisconsin's offense
couldn't create what Bennett calls "comfort looks" for his
three-point shooters, Jon Bryant and Duany Duany.

Yet even before Wisconsin could break a dry spell in which it
failed to score a basket for a six-minute stretch of the first
half, Michigan State embarked on a drought of its own that
lasted almost twice as long. The Flintstones seemed to be
dragging the game back into prehistory with them. The half ended
with the Spartans leading 19-17. (In the Badgers' 1941 NCAA
championship-game win over Washington State, long before the
advent of the shot clock and the three-pointer, the teams scored
two more points than that before intermission.) "The first team
to 40 will win," former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote, the man
who led Magic's team to that '79 title, had predicted on the eve
of the game. But Heathcote hadn't allowed for the possibility
that neither team would crack that mark.

To watch Michigan State play is to wonder sometimes whether the
Spartans conjure up adversity just so they can rally in its
face. Early in the season, after Cleaves suffered a stress
fracture in his right foot that sidelined him for 13 games, they
used the injury as an opportunity to develop depth and improve
their half-court offense. In NCAA tournament play they
surmounted halftime deficits in three of their six games,
outscoring their opponents by an average of 11.5 points in the
second half. With each Michigan State resurrection, the
Spartans' star forward, Peterson, seemed to rise too, usually in
response to hortatory halftime oratory. The team was so down
against the Badgers, however, that Spartans coach Tom Izzo would
say later, "We kind of had a little kiss-and-hug" at halftime.
In that group encounter the occasionally reticent Mo Pete, who
had missed four of his five shots to that point, spoke up. "Very
seldom has Pete really asked for the ball," Izzo said. "But he
felt he could post up, he wanted the ball down low, and the
other guys felt obliged to get it to him."

Peterson's assertiveness cheered his coach. "I've often wondered
if Morris is a guy who can handle success," Izzo says. "The kid
broke down crying when I told him he was Big Ten player of the
year. I think it was half his feeling sorry for Mateen [not
getting the honor] and half his feeling good."

The Spartans' feel-good season seemed imperiled until they began
to unshackle themselves from the Wisconsin defense in the second
half, setting screens for Peterson closer to the basket so that
their offense could get surer shots than the three-pointers for
which they'd been settling. Mo Pete scored 10 points during the
13-2 stretch that consolidated Michigan State's lead after the
break. Then he made a couple of his signature shots, majestic
threes from the wing off double screens, as the Spartans muddled
home 53-41. "It seemed like every time we started to make a run,
Morris Peterson came up with a big basket," said Badgers forward
Mark Vershaw, using the word run loosely.

Against Florida's all-court pressure and endless bench, Michigan
State faced something as different from Wisconsin as Gainesville
is from Madison. But as Bell said before the game against the
Gators, who had outrun North Carolina 71-59 in their semifinal
to reach the championship game, "Everyone on this team played
up-and-down style ball in high school."

In a ballroom at the Holiday Inn Select, breaking down film in
the wee hours of Sunday morning, Izzo mulled over ways to solve
Florida's pressure. "We can beat this," he told his assistants.
"The key is getting the ball into the right hands." Everyone in
the room knew whose hands those were. The Spartans already had
three offensive sets with which to break a press, but Izzo
decided to install a fourth: Cleaves would inbound the ball,
step across the end line, then take an immediate return pass so
he could look upfield, like the option quarterback he resembles
in stature and style. At 2:15 a.m. Izzo took a phone call from
former Michigan State star Scott Skiles, who is now the Phoenix
Suns' coach. Skiles's team had recently beaten the Boston
Celtics, who are coached by Florida coach Billy Donovan's
mentor, Rick Pitino, and use the same full-court press as the
Gators. Sure enough, Skiles suggested exactly what Izzo was
considering, and vouched that the tactic had worked against the
Celtics.

As it turned out, Michigan State never had to deploy that fourth
option. Forward A.J. Granger was usually able to inbound to
Peterson or Bell on the wing, and they then found Cleaves--"the
streak-up guy," Izzo called him--bolting up the middle of the
floor. Not once in the first half did the Spartans lose the ball
in the backcourt. They broke the press every which way: with
Bell and reserve forward Jason Richardson finding short jumpers
and layups; with Cleaves releasing to field long passes for
chippies; with center Andre Hutson dribbling unharassed into the
forecourt when Florida successfully denied a pass to Cleaves.

Michigan State so mastered the press that Donovan called it off
with just under four minutes to play in the half, which ended
with the Spartans leading 43-32. But refreshed by the break, the
Gators pressed anew, and by the 16:18 mark they had pared the
lead to six. That's when Florida guard Teddy Dupay, drawing a
bead on Cleaves as he broke away once more, tried to end the
frustration. He forcefully intercepted him, inadvertently
hooking his right foot around Cleaves's right ankle, which
struck the floor at a grotesque angle. Cleaves wound up in a
grimacing heap by the baseline. "It's broke!" he mouthed. "It's
broke!"

Izzo took a look at Cleaves, then returned to his huddled team
and said, "We're going to war! They took out our leader. Who's
going to step up?"

North Carolina had died against Florida when its point guard, Ed
Cota, picked up his fourth foul. But Michigan State came to
life. Bell returned to the point, his position during Cleaves's
early-season convalescence, and played with unruffled purpose.
Reserve Mike Chappell, who had struggled to find the basket most
of the season, dropped in a three-pointer and a twisting
putback. During the 4 1/2 minutes of action that Cleaves spent
in the locker room--"I dropped a couple of tears," Cleaves would
later say, "but I told the trainer he'd have to amputate my leg
to keep me out of this one"--the Spartans actually extended
their lead.

A scoreboard TV screen displayed the CBS feed directly across
the arena from a great swath of Michigan State supporters, and
soon they erupted at the sight of Cleaves making his way through
a long backstage corridor toward the bench. If he could
negotiate that distance on foot, he could surely return to the
game. And he did, hobbling about for the final 12 minutes by the
grace of ice, tape and a brace. But Cleaves's return was mere
stagecraft. Florida was already broken.

A team can't set about completing a task without stipulating
what needs to be finished. And Izzo planted the seeds of this
title a year ago, in the hours following the Spartans' loss to
Duke in the national semifinals in St. Petersburg. "After we got
beat, we went back to the hotel and set our goals," he said last
week. "Once you state them, the bull's-eye goes on your back.
But if you don't make your statement, I'm not sure you get back
to that level."

Still, the Michigan State coach said, "you almost feel guilty
getting to the Final Four two years in a row," a comment of
characteristic humility. Only two years ago, when Izzo was in
his third season as Heathcote's replacement, it would have been
hard to imagine his ever having the opportunity to utter such a
sentence. Following a loss at home to Detroit that season, Izzo
and assistant Tom Crean, now the coach at Marquette, tried to
console themselves with a postgame drive. They stopped at a
Burger King, then rode around East Lansing while Izzo underwent
his own charcoal broiling on talk radio. "The comments were
brutal," Crean recalled last week. "'He's in over his head';
'They made a mistake'; 'Izzo's not ready for the job.' And Tom
wouldn't turn the radio off. We turned it around that week--beat
Wright State by like 30, went to South Florida and won, and a
couple of weeks later beat Purdue at Purdue by 17. We were
talking about that the other day, that we'd come a long way from
that Burger King drive."

Yet even if the vox populi was raised against him, those who
knew Izzo best always stood ready to grant him the benefit of
the doubt. That same season, the Lansing State Journal ran a
questionnaire inviting readers to sound off on what they thought
of the Spartans' basketball coach. "It had like six major
questions," Izzo says, and readers were asked to rate him from
good to really awful on each. "I found out later that our
football staff--every one of them, they and their wives--went
out and got papers and filled them all out rating me high."

Izzo's values reflect the years he spent working for Heathcote.
"Jud made me who I am: He was big on the program. I think in our
profession too many times the coach thinks he's bigger than the
program." But Izzo has departed from Heathcote orthodoxy in two
basic ways. To win his title, he all but mothballed Heathcote's
old matchup zone, preferring a man-to-man that kept his players
in an attacking frame of mind. And unlike his predecessor, Izzo
sent four players to the offensive glass, a policy that helped
Michigan State lead the nation in rebounding margin, at +12.9.
Their grinding persistence reflects the blue-collar beginnings
of their coach, who grew up in Iron Mountain, on Michigan's
Upper Peninsula, working for the carpet business founded by his
grandfather (Tony Izzo and Sons and Grandsons). As Michigan
State's six-game tournament run proved, it's a mentality that's
equally applicable to the half-court or to 94 feet, to setting a
screen or filling a lane, to lighting a guy up or shutting him
down.

No one embodied that mind-set better than Cleaves. At any speed,
on every plank of the floor, he brought his physical and mental
strength to bear. "Of all the things I love about this kid,"
Izzo said, "I most like that he's able to take criticism."

Taking criticism is simply a matter of knowing what's incomplete
so it might be finished. "I saw them coming three years ago,"
Wisconsin's Bennett said last week. On Monday night he and the
rest of college basketball watched the Spartans arrive, in a
rush, as one.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER Spartan Warrior Mateen Cleaves Leads Michigan State To the National TitleCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER SMACKDOWN Even a mugging by Donnell Harvey couldn't keep Bell from hitting the glass and ringing up one of his eight rebounds.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH MATEEN THE DREAM Cleaves hit a trio of three-pointers in the first half before a hard takedown by Dupay almost knocked him out of the game with a badly sprained right ankle. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO MO BETTER By scoring 15 of his team-high 21 points in the second half, Peterson took up the slack for the Spartans' fallen leader.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO TEAM PLAYER Granger helped put the clamps on the Gators with nine rebounds and 19 points from inside and long range.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER STATE CHAMPS At game's end Cleaves shared a Magic moment with the floor general from the Spartans' previous title team, in '79.
"We're going to war," Izzo said to his huddled players. "They
took out our leader. Who's going to step up?"
With every Spartan resurrection during the NCAA tournament,
Peterson seemed to rise as well.
"I told the trainer that he would have to amputate my leg to
keep me out of this one," Cleaves said.