Throughout the Big Dance we’re going to bring you first-hand Tournament accounts from the ballplayers who have actually been there: guys who have won national championships, who have played in classic games, who have been involved in some monumental upsets, and who have made some unforgettable plays.
First up is Mateen Cleaves, the feature member of Michigan State’s “Flintstones” crew (Cleaves, Mo Pete, Charlie Bell and Antonio Smith) who led the Spartans to a national title in 2000 and copped Final Four Most Outstanding Player along the way. The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and three-time All-American averaged 12.1 points and 6.8 assists as a senior, and in the national title game against Florida, famously came back from a serious ankle sprain to close out the Spartans’ victory. Cleaves is currently playing for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League, putting up 19 points and 8.7 assists a night. Here he talks about what it’s like to win it all…
“When we got to Michigan State, our whole goal was to be nationally known. We wanted to be recognized with the Dukes and North Carolinas — not just for a year or two, but every year. When you talked college basketball, we wanted you to mention Michigan State. The year before (1999) when we went to the Final Four and lost, that was cool, we got our feet wet, but we (Cleaves and Mo Pete) came back to win a championship. That was the whole reason I came back for my senior year.
“We knew it was a target on our back, going in as a #1 seed. A lot of people were shooting for us. We weren’t worried about it, though. We had goals of winning the championship, but we still took it one game at a time. We didn’t look ahead of nobody. To us, everybody else was a target.
“We were behind to Syracuse, behind to Iowa State. When we came back and beat Iowa State to get to the Final Four, that let me know we were destined to win the championship. We knew playing Florida was gonna be a dogfight. I thought they were really good. They’d beat a good team in North Carolina to get there.
“When I hurt my ankle, I thought I’d broken it. What happened was that the tape had snapped, and I thought it was my ankle that popped. It wasn’t broke, but it was real bad. But there wasn’t a doubt: If I could walk or limp, I was going back out there. We were playing for a national championship. It wasn’t at all a hard decision.
“I used to always watch ‘One Shining Moment’ when I was a kid. After we won, standing there watching it in the arena during the trophy presentation, that was something I’d always dreamed about. I broke down and started crying. I remember sitting there with my father when I was growing up, sitting there with my father and my brothers, watching ‘One Shining Moment.’ To be the person receiving the trophy and seeing yourself up there, it was magical.”