For some youngsters who are just growing to love the game of college basketball CBS Sports college basketball analyst Mateen Cleaves just might be just another old head in a suit running off at the mouth about diaper dandies and freshman phenoms, but the illuminated know how Cleaves carried a Michigan State Spartan basketball team to the 2000 NCAA National Championship on his back, earning Most Outstanding Player for the Final Four for that stellar performance. The Shadow League was able to speak to Cleaves prior to his alma mater’s ascension to their 9th overall Final Four appearance, the third by head coach Tom Izzo, after their yeoman defensive effort spurred an upset of 4th seeded Louisville in the Elite Eight. As someone who has been there and done that over the course of an illustrious college basketball career, Cleaves was just the man to talk to about the Final Four festivities.
Ricardo A. Hazell: What are some of the main storylines you’re looking forward to seeing manifest over at the Final Four?
Mateen Cleaves: Can anybody beat Kentucky. Can they get knocked off that pedestal they’re on? That’s what I’m looking for.
RH: Not all sports analysts played basketball at a high-level. In what ways do you feel your prior collegiate experiences make you especially qualified for this line of work?
MC: I’ve been through it. I know what it is. I know what it takes. I can watch a kid miss ten shots and still be able to tell that he’s a shooter just by watching how he releases it. I can see a kid have a bad game and still know that he’s a good player just having a bad game. I know what signs to look for. I look at body language. The kid that’s having a great game and is cheering his team on is easy to do. I look at a kid who’s having a bad game and is still engaged. I look at coaches. Are you adaptable? Can you make adjustments on the fly? That’s something that I look at. I think that my experience from having gone through it definitely helps me when I’m analyzing the game.”
RH: College basketball is headed for a crescendo as the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats have overcome every obstacle thus far. What are your keys for defeating them?
MC: They’ve been through it last year. They were in it. So, this year they’re not excited to be here. They did all that. It’s about getting past that. So, I think the keys to beating them are, first you gotta believe. You can’t come out there playing intimidated. You’re going to have to make outside shots and do a great job of rim protecting. It’s hard to get good looks at the basket, especially inside the lane. So, you’re going to have to make outside shots, be physical on the defensive end. Keep them out of the lane, force them to make outside shots. Devon Booker is one that can make shots consistently. Outside of him, that’s the way they’re going to have to beat me. I’m packing it in. If you make an outside shot then I can live with that. I can’t allow you to continue to dump the ball down low and to penetrate and attack the basket to beat me that way. I would try to get out in transition as well. A lot of teams don’t want to run with Kentucky. I would try to. If you get out in transition and get easy buckets then you don’t have to go against those big 7 footers’ rim protecting. I would try get out in transition, creating opportunities to get open looks from outside, but dirty the game up and make them have to take a bunch of outside jump shots.
RH: The landscape of
MC: I grew up with, and understand, the tradition of the Big East, the tradition of the ACC, the Big Ten, but it is what it is now. I think we have to come to the realization that that’s what it’s going to be. There’s been some interesting basketball. You look at Maryland, who just came in the Big Ten and no one really expected to have success this year. In the ACC, along with the Big 12, was probably one of the most intriguing conference and one of the better conferences in the country. I did like the old school days. But then again, I understand we’re in a world that changes every day. I cool to have adapting if I have to.
RH: Other than Kentucky, what are some of your other favorites to win it all?
MC: I like Duke. I love that backcourt, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Quinn Cook is one of the most underrated players in the country, in my opinion. They’re always talking about other people, and I get it because you’re playing on a team with Okafor and Tyus Jones is a freshman phenom, and Justise Winslow. But Quinn Cook is the leader of that team. The senior. He’s the piece that puts everything together. I like Wisconsin, you talk about Frank Kaminsky, he’s a match-up problem. (When) they face Kentucky he’ll be able to bring those bigs away from the basket and create other driving opportunities for his teammates.
RH: Other there any other activities or endeavors that you’re involved in that you would like our readership to know about?
MC: Basketball is my life, but I do have a thing called One Goal, One Passion where we give free basketball camps in four cities in the state of Michigan through the summer. The inner city youth that don’t have the means to pay for basketball. I never had to pay for basketball. So, that’s why I do it. We also do a thing called Hope for the Holidays where we provide for over 1000 Michigan families, and it’s not your typical turkey giveaway. We partner up with a department store called Meijer where we give everybody a 100 dollar gift card where they can use toward the kids for food packages, vouchers for electricity bills, water bills, ways they can further their education, get health care. So, those are two different things other than basketball that are near and dear to my heart.
You can catch Mateen Cleaves alongside the rest of the CBS Sports College basketball crew next week as the contest to determine college basketball’s best team continues.