Tom Izzo has built himself nothing short of a dynasty in his time at Michigan State. It’s no secret, but the Spartans are built top to bottom again this year. From reigning Big Ten POY, Kalin Lucas, to future NBA check collectors Delvon Roe and Durrell Summers, Sparty is looking good.
In my opinion, Izzo is the best coach in the nation. Don’t mind his four-time National Coach of the Year bling; he still has five Final Four appearances and a career winning mark of .710 percent. He can extract the most out his players every single night and has the records to prove it. This is the best team Izzo has seen since the days of Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager‘s Final Four squad. They are also more experienced than last year’s team that lost in the final game to North Carolina. It’s also the best squad the “man of the Midwest” has coached since Mateen Cleaves once ran East Lansing.
It’s easy to forget just how dominating Cleaves and the “Flintstones” were for the Spartans. In ’99-00, along with fellow Flint, Michigan products, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson, Cleaves brought Michigan State its first national title since Magic defeated Bird in 1979. Cleaves was a three-time All-American and MOP of the Final Four, amongst a trove of other accomplishments while on campus. After having an incredible junior season, Cleaves and the Spartans fell to Duke in the Final Four of the tournament in 1999. Deciding to take a chance at collegiate immortality over guaranteed green in the League, Cleaves returned to the Breslin Center for his senior season.
The 1999-2000 Spartans had nothing short of a stacked squad: extending even into the freshmen end of their bench. Along with Bell and Peterson, senior A.J. Granger and a young Jason Richardson also played significant roles in State’s success. In the end, Michigan State had amassed a record of 32-7 to accompany their NCAA Championship hardware.
After marching its way through Valparaiso, Utah, Syracuse, Iowa State and Wisconsin, State met up with the Mike Miller-led Florida Gators in the finale. Florida, led by coach Billy Donovan and a slew of young guys, fell to the Spartans 89-77 in the Championship game. If it hadn’t been for their inexperience and youth, Florida would have just as stacked a bench as MSU did. Along with Miller, Matt Bonner, Donnell Harvey and Udonis Haslem, who led all scorers with 27, all went on to have solid careers at UF. But on this night, the one shining moment belonged all to Cleaves and Michigan State.
In what is perhaps the most emotional moment in all of tournament recaps and March Madness highlight videos, is a hobbled Cleaves crying as he and Izzo embrace after their win. Early in the second half, Cleaves went down with a rolled right ankle and had to leave the game. After a short time in the locker room, Cleaves winced in pain back onto the court and fueled his team toward cementing the win. Considering how much Cleaves went through to get back to this point, this was his moment and nothing was going to stop him.
Cleaves meant so much to the MSU program that they retired his jersey, immortalizing him next to Magic and the other Spartan greats. After his storybook senior year, Cleaves was drafted 14th by the Pistons in the 2000 draft, but only enjoyed a short NBA career. Detroit only kept Cleaves for his rookie season before shipping him West to Sacramento, where he never settled into the rotation. He is currently still on the outside looking in, this season running in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam. Whether he ever lands with another NBA squad againâ€”he is in his 30’sâ€”he remains one of the greatest college players to lace ’em up.
The following season, Michigan State battled all the way back to the Final Four before losing to Gilbert Arenas and Arizona. Led by Bell, Richardson and the one-and-done Zach Randolph, Izzo made it three consecutive Final Four appearances.
As for the other notable Sparty alums of the ’99-00 team, Bell and Peterson are still earning their pay in the NBA with the Bucks and Hornets respectively. While Richardson, who is no doubt the gem of the ’00 Spartans, is looking to have a big season with the Suns in Phoenix.
I have faith that the Spartans have a strong chance to make a deep run in the tournament this season and even back to the Final Four. The Izzone will once again be rocking the rafters in East Lansing, hoping that this year’s team can return back to the Championship elite of 2000.
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