Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Numbers don't tell Cleaves' story

Spartans guard natural leader

The Associated Press

        CHICAGO — The problem is that he can't be captured in numbers or stat sheets or even highlight films.

        When it comes to Mateen Cleaves, you have to work at it a little bit. You have to call off the search for the crossover dribble and the glitz and pay attention to the grunt work. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe America doesn't like its star point guards grunting.

        Maybe America should remember its work ethic. What Cleaves brings to the table is a knife and a fork and a big appetite for success. The basics.

        What Cleaves does best is lead his team, make everybody else in a Michigan State uniform better and force opposing point guards to question the meaning of life.

        “There are some people who are just never satisfied,” he said. “But I say you can block all that out by winning. I recently heard Allen Iverson talk. He can go out and score 40 points, and people are going to keep bashing and bashing until you win games.

        “You can say what you want about me, but right now all people can say is, "He keeps winning.' That's what I want to be known as now, a winner.”

        Opponents are aware of it, the way they're aware of someone standing on their chests. And coaches are aware of the junior too, enough that for the second year in a row they have voted him winner of the Chicago Tribune's Silver Basketball award, given to the best player in the Big Ten.

        Coaches, in particular, like Cleaves because they'd all like to have him on their teams. He is so strong, he forces opponents to the fringes of the court.

        “He's not a slashy, jitterbug, get-to-the-basket, I'm-going-to-create-everybody's-shot type of guy,” Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said. “He's kind of a sledgehammer point guard. He just gets it done.”

        Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils will oppose Cleaves for the second time this season Saturday in the NCAA Tournament semifinals.

        “There aren't many point guards like Mateen Cleaves,” Krzyzewski said. “The reason he's exceptional at his position is he can run their set system and make whatever plays they may be running happen because of his strength with the ball and his leadership ability.”

        Krzyzewski says Cleaves is one of the top five players in the country. Cleaves' numbers aren't even top 100. He's averaging 11.7 points a game and shooting just 41 percent from the floor.

        This is our star of stars?

        Yes, but for other reasons. Michigan State takes a 22-game winning streak into Saturday's matchup with Duke. After a poor start, the Spartans won the regular-season Big Ten title, as well as the conference tournament. It would be trite to say Cleaves willed them there, because this is a deep, physical team that can fend for itself. But Cleaves has fire-blasted them into a hardened group.

        “It's funny,” coach Tom Izzo said. “Mateen is from an area in Flint. And we're a real melting pot — we've got kids from all different areas and backgrounds. For some reason, they all gravitate to him.”

        It is one of the ironies of the Spartans' season that the turning point came when Cleaves softened his edges a little bit.

        “At the beginning of the year, there were a lot of expectations on me,” he said. “I kind of stopped having fun playing basketball. I was thinking I had to have a perfect game. Everything had to be perfect.

        “I got to the point where I'd get mad at myself for missing shots or turning the ball over every once in a while. I was thinking too much out there. It wasn't fun. I was taking it as a business and forgot the things that got me there. I like to have fun when I'm playing basketball.”