No kidding, Peterson is The Man

Michigan State: Nicknamed "The Man," Spartans star Morris Peterson spent his first few seasons in East Lansing being anything but. This season, the Big Ten Player of the Year has grown into his role.

March 29, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

When did Michigan State's Morris Peterson become The Man?

Ask his family and they'll tell the story of a 5-year-old Peterson who believed he was already a man until he had to lead his family into their darkened house one day. He cried and begged not to be a grown-up yet, but a lifelong nickname stuck: Man.

Ask Peterson and he'll recall the time two months ago, when Peterson had a Chinese symbol emblazoned on his chest. It was a tattoo signifying "Man," a permanent reminder of how a former role player turned into this season's Big Ten Player of the Year.

But ask his teammates and they'll start counting on their fingers. For the Spartans, Peterson didn't back up that description until a few days ago.

The 6-foot-7 senior wing player soared in the emotional comebacks against Syracuse and Iowa State last week, assuming the responsibility of carrying top-seeded Michigan State to the Final Four. The favored Spartans (30-7) will battle Wisconsin (22-13) in the national semifinals Saturday.

"It's his team now," said Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State's point guard and Peterson's roommate. "I've been telling him that he should be the guy taking the big shot, making the big defensive play, getting the big rebound. Now, he's doing just that."

When State trailed Syracuse by 14 points Thursday, Peterson scored 16 points in the final 17 minutes to lift the Spartans to the Midwest Regional final. Two days later, the fifth-year senior accounted for nine points in a 20-3 game-ending run over Iowa State, erasing a seven-point deficit with six minutes to go and sending Michigan State to its second straight Final Four.

"It was a growing process," Peterson said. "People have looked upon me to lead and take that big shot, and I've had to take on that challenge."

Said coach Tom Izzo: "When Morris brings his energy, he does it in so many different ways. Morris is the most versatile player on our team, and probably in the country. I think he's the most fortunate player that I've ever been associated with in how he came in and how he came out."

But the "coming out" party took some tough love.

Cleaves has admitted to screaming in Peterson's face during halftime of games. Although Peterson leads State in scoring (16.6) and ranks second in rebounding (6.1), he has disappeared in critical spans. Instead of shooting a three or slashing to the basket, he preferred to pass the ball.

That's why the child development major has seemingly become a popular case study at the East Lansing university.

So, why has he sometimes lacked assertiveness in the final stages of games? Some remember his lack of dedication.

When Peterson was a freshman, Spartans coach Tom Izzo ordered a private meeting a few days before the Maui Classic. Izzo said miss another class and miss the trip. The next day, Peterson overslept for an 8 a.m. class and didn't make the trip.

Others hint that Peterson has a "soft" mentality.

After having his cast removed from a broken wrist two years ago, Peterson shied away on defense. He never dove after a ball. He rebounded with one hand.

"Hey, Pete, did you find anyone on campus yet that you can guard," Izzo remembers saying. "Everybody would laugh, but I was dead serious."

The cast remained on the top of his locker. But Peterson never remained the same.

As a junior, he filled in as State's sixth man and flourished outside of the spotlight. Averaging 13.6 points and 5.7 rebounds, he was the only nonstarter that year to be named to a major conference's first team.

This season, Peterson has increased his numbers as well as the attention surrounding him. He fired in 31 points in a victory at North Carolina, recorded double doubles twice against Ohio State and has reached double figures in scoring in 14 straight games.

"Peterson's a prototypical wing player, a guy who's close to unstoppable," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said after a loss to Michigan State two months ago. "If his team wasn't so balanced, we'd all be talking about how he's the best player in the country."

That's been the typical observation. Peterson could be the best, could be the most valuable.

It wasn't until last week, when his collegiate career was nearly over twice, that Peterson matured as a leader in prime time.

In the Midwest Regional semifinals Thursday, Peterson attempted only three shots while Syracuse pulled out to a 40-26 lead a minute into the second half. A couple minutes later, the smooth left-hander drained a three-pointer and could be heard saying to Cleaves, "Keep giving me the ball. I want the ball."

Peterson finished by hitting four of six three-pointers in the second half, his last one putting the Spartans up, 63-58, with 4: 42 left.

"Pete, that's what I was talking about," Cleaves said to Peterson walking off the court. "I knew after you hit that first shot and said that, you were going to come through for us."

The next game, Peterson decided to call for the ball again -- but in the huddle.

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