Leaner Cleaves bulks up Mich. St. Guard loses pounds, wins spot in hearts of Spartans fans

March 19, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The first step in Michigan State's rapturous journey to this year's Sweet 16 started last summer when point guard Mateen Cleaves shed 25 cumbersome pounds.

Cleaves played basketball last season like a guy in a parka. He was uncomfortable, unseemly and -- in light of his celebrated high school career at Flint (Mich.) Northern -- unspectacular.

By any other word, he was fat.

"I felt like I was playing with seven winter coats on," said the charismatic point guard, who'll lead the underdog Spartans into an East Regional semifinal tonight against No. 1 seeded and No. 1-ranked North Carolina at Greensboro Coliseum.

"This summer, if I had any chance to be one of the marquee players, I knew I had to lose weight."

The root of the problem was a back ailment. A former high school All-American in both basketball and football at Flint, the injured Cleaves allowed his weight to climb into the 220 neighborhood as a high-profile recruit in East Lansing.

Even though he averaged 10.2 points and 5.0 assists as a freshman, he knew he was capable of much more.

Like 16.1 points, 7.3 assists and a peppery 71 steals.

Those are the numbers that earned Cleaves Big Ten Player of the Year honors as a sophomore this season, which sparked the Spartans' first Sweet 16 run in eight years.

Those are the numbers that have Spartans fans harkening back to the days of one Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who played the same position 19 years ago.

On a team that also starts two freshmen and two juniors, #F Cleaves is the undisputed leader. But youth sometimes has its disadvantages. And Feb. 17, Cleaves learned a youthful lesson.

In the exhilarating hours after a huge win over Michigan, Cleaves was arrested along with teammate Andre Hutson on alcohol charges. Cleaves, 20, was charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol, refusing a breath test and violating seat-belt laws.

Michigan State suspended Cleaves for the first half of the team's next game -- a 56-47 win over Wisconsin -- but he still scored 14 points in 19 minutes in the second half.

"I learned you make mistakes in life," Cleaves said yesterday. "When you make a mistake, you try not to make it twice. You think you have a lot of friends, but in a split second, they'll be tearing you down."

In one of tonight's key matchups, Cleaves faces another "old" friend in Carolina point guard Ed Cota, who also will be trying to tear him down.

Their friendship goes back to the McDonald's High School All-American game in 1996, which both participated in. They played against each other only briefly, though, because of Cleaves' back injury. Cota outscored Cleaves, 11-0, that game.

"That's two years ago," Cota said, careful not to open old wounds.

Said Cleaves of Cota: "When the ball's in his hands in the open court, he can cause a lot of problems."

Despite the fact that Carolina (32-3) returns six of the top seven players from its Final Four run a year ago, Cleaves says the Spartans (22-7) won't be intimidated.

"When you think of North Carolina, you think of three or four McDonald's All-Americans," he said. "You think of their tradition, of [Michael] Jordan, [James] Worthy, [Jerry] Stackhouse. They've had great players. I kind of enjoy watching them."


"We're not star-struck. We've just got to come out and play hard."

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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