Mateen Cleaves, Point Guard, Michigan State (’96-00)- A throwback as far as this list goes, one of my earliest memories(I was 7 or 8 at the time) watching college basketball was the late 90′s MSU Spartan teams led by Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves. While Peterson turned into the better pro and was a dominant college player in his own right, the player that I like many young college basketball fans became enamored with was Mateen Cleaves. If I had to describe Cleaves in one word, without hesitation the word that jumps into my head is “SWAGGER”. While the word “Swagger” wasn’t as commonly used in conversation as it is today, it could have been used perfectly when describing the way Mateen Cleaves played the game of basketball.
Cleaves played the game with such a Swagger and a confidence , as his flash, creativity and most of all his child like exuberance all added to his greatness. Cleaves was really good and what made him even better was that he knew that he was good, using that confidence and moxie to gain an edge over opponents. Cleaves was almost a cult figure of sorts, as if you ask any 20 something year old who watched college hoops back then, they will almost without fail, tell you how much they enjoyed Mateen Cleaves’ game. Cleaves started as a highly touted recruit out of Flint, Michigan but unlike most of the state’s heralded players at the time, chose Michigan State over then national powerhouse Michigan. That decision would change the future of basketball in the state of Michigan forever and symbolized the beginning of something special in East Lansing for the Spartans and their young head coach Tom Izzo. Cleaves went on to rewrite the record books at MSU, as the dynamic guard finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in assists(816)and steals(195), and also still ranks in the top 20 on the Spartans career scoring list with over 1,500 points. Cleaves remains the school’s only 3-time All-American and also was named Big Ten Player of the Year twice, winning the award as both a junior and a senior in ’98 and ’99. Cleaves had a huge sophomore season averaging 16.1 points and 7.2 assists, earning All-American honors, while leading the Spartans back to the NCAA Tournament for the 1st time in 3 years, where they advanced to the Sweet 16. While Cleaves’ was terrific as a sophomore, his true breakout season was his junior campaign, as Cleaves led the Spartans to the Final Four where they lost to Duke, averaging 11.7 points and 7.2 assists along the way. The next season Michigan State wouldn’t play second fiddle to anyone, as the Spartans led by Cleaves and Izzo went 32-7 and won their 2nd National Title. That season Cleaves averaged 12.1 ppg and 6.9apg, while earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors, as well as Final Four MVP honors. Cleaves poured in 18 points and added 4 assists in the title game win over Florida, capping one of the greatest collegiate careers in Big Ten history. What was even more impressive was how Cleaves battled that game on a severely sprained ankle, limping up and down the floor while guiding MSU to victory. As good as Cleaves was throughout his career, specifically in that 2000 NCAA Tournament, his brightest moment may have come on 3/4/2000, on Michigan State’s senior day. Cleaves had one of the greatest senior days ever, as he dished out 20 assists in a blowout of arch rival Michigan State, setting the Big Ten’s career assist record and individual game record during that game. This video clip of that game perfectly captures what made Cleaves special, as his vision, flair, passion and exuberance are fully on display throughout these 9 minutes of YouTube epicness. After college, Cleaves wound up being drafted 14th overall in 2000 by the hometown Pistons and wound up playing 6 NBA seasons with 5 different teams(Det, Sac, Cle, Bos, Sea), before playing overseas and later in the NBDL. Cleaves never found success at the NBA level, as his inconsistent jump shot and overall game for one reason or another never translated to the NBA. This has put a damper on Cleaves’ career and legacy, as we tend to overlook his collegiate greatness because he never made it at the NBA level. Mateen Cleaves for my money is one of the best point guards and overall leaders ever to wear a college basketball jersey, as his passion, flavor and leadership, made him one of the most popular and successful 4 year college players of his era. Mateen Cleaves makes my list not just because of his gaudy statistics but because of how he played the game and the sheer joy and passion he brought to the floor every time he slipped into that #12 Spartan jersey. Cleaves was as popular a player with a fan base (MSU) as I have ever seen, as he is still revered in East Lansing and remembered as one of the all-time greats alongside players like Magic Johnson, Steve Smith and Shawn Respert. I will always remember Mateen Cleaves for his passion, circus passes and giant smile, as no one enjoyed the game more or played it as creatively as Mateen Cleaves did during those 4 years at Michigan State. Cleaves today, (to no surprise) is still is involved with college basketball, as he serves as a CBB analyst for CBS Sports, while also covering the Detroit Pistons for Fox Sports Detroit. Mateen Cleaves played the game the way it was meant to be played, as he not only was the ultimate champion but always played with a huge smile on his face, a sign that he truly loved and enjoyed the game of basketball. Not to sound over sentimental but there was just something special about watching Mateen Cleaves play, as he was like an artist who had mastered his craft, who was capable of creating magic with a single pass or ball handling trick. As a final note I urge you to watch the video link of Cleaves’ Senior Day which I embedded above, as this is as good as a point guard can play in a game and also features the ultimate goosebump moment, as Cleaves comes out of the game for the final time at home in East Lansing and is met with a resounding applause from the Michigan State faithful.