The players surrounding him were superior in athleticism, skill, and God-given talent. When scouts walked into a gymnasium, they simply saw just one of the guys who helped to get the ball up the court and would get the play started. But look closer, and what you would really see is the heartbeat of a basketball program that literally meant nothing without him.
When speaking of Michigan State legend, yes Legend, Mateen Cleaves is one of college basketball’s greatest leaders. Regardless of what perception indicated, he was the steady cog that kept the wheels churning for Tom Izzo’s Spartans. What made Cleaves an extraordinary college point guard were his command of the game, infectious personality, uncommon strength, physical defense, and devotion to team success. He himself was his biggest critic, challenging himself to carry his squad to the proverbial promise land. During his four year stay in East Lansing, his teams complied a record of 104-32, earning three Big Ten titles in the process.
It wasn’t always so glorious for Cleaves, as a back injury bothered him throughout his freshman year making his transition to college very difficult. It wasn’t until his sophomore season when he commenced to dominating the games he played considering he was back to full health. He was always in command, sometimes controlling the ball throughout the duration of the shot clock only to make the right play in the end.
While Mateen’s numbers on average may not immediately jump out at anyone, consider the totality of his work. He currently ranks 14th of MSU’s career scoring list (1,541), he is the Big Ten’s all-time leader in assists (816), and he is Michigan State’s all-time leader in steals (195).
It is without question a storied career for Cleaves, however his legend became epic in the 2000 NCAA title game against the Florida Gators. With 16 minutes remaining in the game , he suffered a sprained ankle which sent him to the locker room prompting serious doubt that the Spartans would be able to hold onto the six point lead they had at this point in the game. But in Karate Kid-like fashion, Mateen limped back out onto the court to help MSU complete and 13-point victory and claim the school’s second national championship. Rarely a big scorer, he posted 18 points included 3 of 4 from the 3-point line.
“They were going to have to amputate my leg to keep me out,” said Cleaves. Bottom line, Mateen Cleaves is simply a winner and all else is irrelevant.