Tuesday, April 04, 2000

Cleaves: 4 years well spent at MSU

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — Four minutes earlier, he had crawled off the court and onto his team's sideline, on all fours, no more agile than a baby. Mateen Cleaves had collided with Teddy Dupay in a gruesome, midair ballet. They met ankle to ankle; Cleaves' ankle got the worst of it.

        We'd seen too much of this already this year, beginning with Kenyon Martin, continuing with Khalid El-Amin and Shaheen Holloway. But not Cleaves. Not now, in the national title game he'd been waiting for his whole life.

        Cleaves came back, though. He wouldn't miss this. He returned to the Michigan State bench and came back into the game with 11:51 left. He walked like Captain Ahab. It was good enough, though, to make it to the post-game awards ceremony, celebrating the Spartans' first national title in 21 years.

Great early
        Cleaves was great early, scoring 18 points in the first 22 minutes against Florida, and not committing a turnover in the first 12 minutes against the Gators' withering press.

        When he wasn't great, when the only thing keeping him upright was his will and an ankle wrap, Morris Peterson took over. Cleaves' best friend, one of Michigan State's other two seniors, put Florida away with nine points in three minutes.

        Sometimes, it works this way. You stay four years, you believe in the value of college and the joy of being a college student, and you are rewarded with something like this.

        Michigan State beat Florida 89-76 to win it all. This one was for the seniors. Everywhere.

For the seniors
        Immediately, it was for Cleaves, Peterson and A.J. Granger, Michigan State's three four-year players. Universally, it was for every senior who stayed in school when he might have left, and the rewards he earned for doing so.

        Current college hoop wisdom suggests if you stay four seasons, there is something wrong with you. You don't have any options. You aren't good enough to leave. Never mind that most of the players who leave early aren't good enough, either; teams that use lots of seniors are perceived as lacking.

        Cleaves and Peterson, at least, stayed for the oddest of reasons: They liked college. They enjoyed the camaraderie, the precious, fading light of kid-hood. They knew they would grow up soon enough. Given that they both hail from the sad streets of Flint, Mich., home to closed auto plants, they've probably aged too much already.

        So, why rush it?

        Stay in school. Hang out, work for a championship and a legacy. Get a degree, or get close. The days of free and easy are worth as much as an NBA contract.

        It takes poise to beat a team like Florida. The Gators come at you in battalions, pressing and running. They play beyond fast. “They play fierce,” Cleaves had said. Against that sort of pressure, teams unsure of themselves can play like they're fumbling in the dark for their house keys.

        The Spartans played like they'd handled it every day. This is what being a senior brings to the Madness. That, and the urgent notion that this is absolutely the last chance to get it completely right. In your final act, you don't want to be tripping over the footlights.

        Cleaves destroyed the Florida press early. He beat the Gators down the floor twice in a row, to turn baseball passes into layups. When the Gators backed off, Cleaves drilled two 3-pointers from the key in three Spartan possessions. So much for the press.

        In fact, Michigan State was better at running than Florida was. When the Gators hurt the Spartans, it was close to the basket.

        Ultimately, Cleaves played on one leg. What held him up? The notion of a dream at his fingertips? The pride in finishing a four-year job? Whatever, it wasn't his right ankle.

        The last five minutes, he directed traffic on offense. On defense, he tried to stay out of the way. Then he danced on one leg, the prettiest dance you've ever seen. When Cleaves finally left the gym, it was on crutches, the net hanging from his neck.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

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