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Michigan State

Katz: Why these four?

Spartans remember last year

Cleaves, Izzo have bond that runs deep

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has a special relationship with point guard Mateen Cleaves that probably started five years before Cleaves was born.

It was March 1972, in old Hedgecock Fieldhouse on the campus of Northern Michigan University. Izzo, a guard on the Iron Mountain High School team, was fouled with two seconds remaining in the regional finals with West Iron County.

Tom Izzo and Mateen Cleaves
Mateen Cleaves and Tom Izzo have enjoyed their four years together.

Izzo's team, which included Steve Mariucci -- who now coaches the San Francisco 49ers -- trailed by one point. During a timeout, before shooting the 1-and-1, Izzo told coach Gordie LeDuc he was confident.

"Don't worry coach, I'll make 'em," said Izzo, an 11th-grader.

Then he stepped to the line and missed. West Iron County moved on to the state quarterfinals. Izzo fell to the floor in tears.

LeDuc was at his side in a flash.

"There were a lot of tears flowing," LeDuc said by phone Tuesday from his Upper Peninsula home. "I went over and assured him that everything was going to be all right.

"Tommy went on from there," he said.

Izzo has guided Michigan State to the Final Four for the second straight year. Yet the old newspaper clip from that long-ago high school game is still in his wallet. He shows it to his players from time to time, when times get tough.

"That's just the kind of guy Tom is," DeLuc said. "He relates so well with everybody."

He relates especially well, however, with Cleaves who is the very heart of this Michigan State team. There have been times the past few years when Cleaves has tried Izzo's patience, but there has never been a time when there wasn't a perfect understanding between the two.

Cleaves pleaded guilty to having an unopened can of beer in his possession as a minor after a 1997 win over rival Michigan. That same year, Cleaves was linked to a fight during campus party, although he never has been charged.

Last year, Cleaves and Antoinio Smith, a former teammate, were charged with stealing a 40-ounce bottle of beer from a party store. Smith was acquitted and charges against Cleaves were dropped.

When the situation called for it, Izzo has disciplined Cleaves. Still, nothing has soured their relationship.

"We've been through a lot," Izzo said. "We have a lot in common. Mateen and I both have a will to win. I'd like this program to be the best that it can be. I think he would, too. So, it's been a good marriage."

In the four years Cleaves has been on the team, Michigan State has a record of 102-32. The Spartans are 30-7 this season, heading into Saturday's national semifinal against Wisconsin, a team the Spartans have defeated three times already.

"The pressure has been tremendous. It's like we were wearing targets on our backs at times," Cleaves said. "But the pressure never changed coach. He has always been humble."

This is one reason why the Spartans have been able to come back from big deficits to win their last three games. The coach and the point guard almost always think alike.

"We execute well down the stretch," Izzo said. "Maybe that has to do with a point guard that can run your team like Mateen does."

There is one moment Cleaves will never forget. After registering a Big Ten-record 20 assists in a 114-63 blowout over rival Michigan in the final regular-season game, Cleaves was taken out of the game with 4:12 remaining.

His effort had helped the Spartans clinch their third straight Big Ten championship. Izzo went over and gave him a hug, much as DeLuc had done with him so many years before.

"I love you man," Izzo said.

With fans at Breslin Center showering them with affection, Cleaves tried to contain his emotions. Then he heard a slight sob from Izzo.

"I started crying, too," Cleaves said.

Despite their apparent success, this has not been an easy season for either Cleaves or the Spartans.

Cleaves missed the first two months with a stress fracture in his right foot. As a result, the Spartans -- who had lined up a nonconference schedule that included North Carolina, Connecticut, Texas, Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky -- lost some games they probably should have won.

Things obviously got better when Cleaves returned. The Spartans are the only No. 1 seed to make it to the Final Four.

"In some ways, you wonder if you'll ever replace a guy like Mateen," Izzo said. "He brings so much to the table."
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