Skip to main content
Original Issue

5. Michigan State Where once was Earvin Johnson, there's now Mateen Cleaves, another Spartan guard sparking talk of magic in March

We know what you did last summer, Mateen Cleaves. As a member of
the jerry-built team that represented the U.S. at the world
championship in Greece, you learned all sorts of useful (and as
you say yourself, dirty) tricks from the pros. Like how to
furtively grab a fistful of jersey when setting a screen, or how
to subtly tap a shooter's wrist just before he releases his
shot. "Lots of little stuff that the referee doesn't see," as
you put it.

Not that Cleaves needs many more advantages on the court. Last
season the muscular Spartans point guard averaged a team-high
16.1 points and 7.2 assists (eighth in the country) to win the
Big Ten Player of the Year award as a sophomore. Entering this
season, Cleaves, one of five returning starters from last year's
surprising Big Ten co-champion, is on everybody's A-list of
national player of the year candidates.

His game, though, could still use a few finishing touches. Last
year Cleaves shot 40% from the field, a conspicuously low figure
even by Michigan State standards. (Of the Spartans starters,
only center Andre Hutson shot better than 44% from the field.)
To free up shooting space for Cleaves, Spartans coach Tom Izzo
is counting on more inside scoring, particularly from senior
forward Antonio Smith, who averaged more rebounds (8.7) than
points (7.9) a year ago. "We're not a good shooting team, so we
have to be a good rebounding team," says Izzo.

Last season the Spartans were fifth in the nation in rebound
margin, despite not having a starter taller than 6'8". Their
secret? Several times a week they practice a drill called "war,"
in which Izzo will line up 10 players around the basket, clang
the ball off the rim and see who comes down with the prize.
Darwinism reigns. "It turns into a football game, my kind of
game," growls Izzo, whose best friend is San Francisco 49ers
coach Steve Mariucci.

An upgraded non-conference schedule, which features games
against Temple, Duke and Connecticut (none of them at home) in
the season's first month, should further toughen the Spartans.
"We could be really good and be 4-3," Izzo says. "The question
is how do we handle that? And how do we deal with it if we win?
Are we going to go back to work?"

Perhaps he frets too much. His battle-tested lineup includes
senior guard Jason Klein, a wicked, albeit streaky, outside
shooter; sophomore guard Charlie Bell, the team's best defender;
and Hutson, a sophomore who shot better than 61% from the field.
And, of course, there is Cleaves, who learned more than dirty
tricks from the NBA castoffs on the world championship team. "I
was around guys who have to stay at the crappy hotels in the
CBA," he says. "They told me it's a cruel world, that I
shouldn't be in any hurry to leave college."

For now Cleaves says he plans on staying in East Lansing through
his senior year. If he does, the Spartans' surprising success
last year is only a hint of bigger things to come.

--Grant Wahl



SF [*]Jason Klein 6'7" Sr. 11.2 ppg
PF [*]Antonio Smith 6'8" Sr. 8.7 rpg
C [*]Andre Hutson 6'8" So. 61.3 FG%
SG [*]Charlie Bell 6'3" So. 9.2 ppg
PG [*]Mateen Cleaves 6'2" Jr. 7.2 apg

'97-98 record: 22-8 Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 10
[*] Returning starter