MILWAUKEE — I sat about 10 feet from Mateen Cleaves’ mother Sunday afternoon. At one point, in a wild and noisy game the Spartans trailed much of the way, Mateen complained to a referee about a foul, and an opposing fan yelled, “Aw, Cleaves, stop your crying!”
At which point, Mom let him have it.
The fan, not Mateen.
“YOU MIND YOUR BUSINESS!” she yelled. “HE ONLY TAKES DIRECTIONS FROM ME!”
So I suppose we have Mom to thank for the fact that the Spartans are where they are this morning, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament. Because just in case we forgot whose team this is, Cleaves, his mother’s son, decided to remind us. Took it over, is all he did. Just like Mom wanted.
Not that he didn’t make fans sweat. With less than five minutes left, this second-round showdown against upstart Mississippi had been a jitterbug, all over the place, frantic and manic and loud, with the underdog looking at times like the big fish and the favored No. 1 seed, Michigan State, looking as comfortable as a kid at his SAT test.
Bodies were flying. Shots were clanging. Fans were screaming. Bands were blowing noise at each other. An Ole Miss guard who stood all of 5-feet-5 put the ball through his legs, backed up and buried a long three-point basket and his upset-minded fans went nuts, smelling blood. The Spartans were down by three, 59-56. The game, for green-and-white fans, was as comfortable as a bar fight.
And then Cleaves put his large palm on the ball and seemed to say, “Uh
…hello? Remember me?”
He came downcourt and buried a long three-pointer of his own. Tie game. Then he took a blocked shot and went in from midcourt, rising to the backboard for a flashbulb-popping lay-up. Next time down, he whipped an inside pass to Antonio Smith for a gentle roll in. Then he stole the ball and went coast-to-coast, kissing the glass for a lay-up and a six-point lead.
“THAT’S MY BABY!” his mother screamed.
I didn’t hear the Mississippi fan anymore.
You can talk about teamwork, you can talk about sharing the load, you can talk about spreading it around, but at some point, your leader has to emerge. Cleaves, the Big Ten co-player of the year, did it when it was most needed Sunday, and it was that, more than any single factor, that gave the Spartans a date Friday to play Oklahoma in the third round of what already has been a crushing tournament to favored teams such as Arizona, North Carolina, and UCLA.
“I wish I could take credit for what Mateen did,” Tom Izzo, the Spartans’ coach, said after the 74-66 victory, “but I can’t. That’s why he is who he is.”
All told, Cleaves scored or assisted on the Spartans’ final five baskets. He scored MSU’s final point, and when the horn sounded, he had the basketball cradled in his arms.
Which for Spartan fans, is about as safe a place as it can be.
The Cleaves way
“What happened in those last five minutes?” Cleaves was asked, in the hallway of the Bradley Center after the game was over.
“I don’t know, it was like a switch got thrown,” he said. “After (Jason Harrison, the 5-5 guard) made that shot, I felt like we had to do something. I came down and made one. And then, as I was running back upcourt, I looked over to his fans in the stands and I was talking to them.”
“Were you saying ‘Take that?’ “
“No, no, no,” he said, smiling. “I was telling them I liked his game, that’s all. I liked his game.”
Hmm. Either he’s got the best on-court manners I’ve ever seen, or he knows how to cover his butt. Either way, Cleaves proved his worth in those final five minutes. His is not a conventional point-guard game. His shot is not pretty. He doesn’t always drive to the hoop.
He simply shows up when he has to. It’s an instinct. It comes from a leadership gene and a comfort zone with being in the middle of madness.
“I was never nervous during the whole thing,” he said, even though the Spartans trailed much of the first half, and were teetering until those final minutes of the second. “I have a lot of faith, in myself and in my teammates.
“You got to give this (Mississippi) team credit. They are physical and they play hard. We knew they were going to be tough — but not that tough!”
Lost in the euphoria was the fact that Cleaves, with 18 points, had led his team in scoring — something he doesn’t usually do — as well as leading MSU in assists (seven), steals (three) and minutes (37).
“I’m tired, man,” he said. “I’m going to go home and sleep for two days.”
The Spartans’ way
It is a well-deserved rest. All day Sunday, and all night Friday night, you could see the burden with which the Spartans played these first two rounds. They may have earned the No. 1 seed this year, but they are not used to it. They are not Duke, accustomed to blowing people out.
Michigan State is a team that often comes out tentative, plays tough defense, makes good adjustments at halftime, and closes it out in the final eight minutes. That may not please the critics who think being a No. 1 seed means leading by 30 points most of the way. But take a look at who’s still standing.
“All I know is that I keep hearing about all these showdowns Mateen was supposed to have with these hot point guards,” Izzo said, “and none of them are left.”
I’ve said it before, you don’t win this tournament, you survive it. It takes gumption, skill, belief, luck, and it takes — and this is irreplaceable — a go-to guy.
When the Spartans needed to go, they went to Cleaves. It is the gift he brings the team.
That, and his personal motherly cheering section.
When the game ended, Cleaves took the ball that was cradled in his arms and threw it blindly backwards in celebration. It flew up against the backboard, banked off the glass, hit the rim, and fell straight through.
I’d call that a good sign.
St. Louis, anybody?
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org