Michigan's Trey Burke, left, averages 18.8 points and 7.1 assists in Michigan wins. MSU's Keith Appling, right, is averaging 14.6 points and 3.8 assists and shooting 41.3 percent from the field in the Spartans' wins. (Detroit News photos)
Mateen Cleaves is always in a good mood when the NCAA Tournament starts.
Cleaves knows what he is talking about when he talks about the Tournament. He was the major cog in leading Michigan State to two straight Final Fours and the 2000 NCAA title.
He's curious to see what Michigan and Michigan State can do in the Tournament this year as high seeds. Fans question Michigan's toughness and Michigan State's sluggish starts. But Cleaves knows the key components for a long run are point guards Keith Appling of MSU and U-M's Trey Burke.
They make the show go. And they also can stop the show when they lose focus of the team concept.
"They got to get everything rolling," Cleaves said. "When you go to Michigan State as a point guard, that is what you sign up for. The ball is going to be in your hands and it is all about you. I felt when I played well we won, and when I didn't play well we lost. That is the pressure I put on myself. Look at Michigan at the great point guards they had: Rumeal Robinson, Jalen Rose and Gary Grant. You got to get it going."
When Appling and Burke roll, so do the Spartans and Wolverines. And it is not just about scoring points. Both teams are better when their point guards make their teammates better. Here are some telling numbers.
In Michigan victories, Burke is averaging 18.8 points and 7.1 assists and is shooting 50.7 percent from the field. In losses, he is averaging 20.6 points, shooting 39.6 percent from the field, and averaging just 5.3 assists. Burke has offensive weapons around him in Tim Hardaway Jr., Nick Stauskas and Glen Robinson III. When he uses them, Michigan is tough to guard. When he ignores them, teams can load up defensively on Burke. At times, he looked like a guy trying to win Big Ten and national player of the year on one play.
Let's look at Appling. In MSU wins, he's averaging 14.6 points and 3.8 assists and shooting 41.3 percent from the field. In losses, those numbers dip to 10.4 points, 2.8 assists and 35.5 percent.
Appling's problems are slightly different. He looks frazzled when things are not going right. But like Burke he can take the ball to the hole.
"I do love Trey Burke," Cleaves said. "He's a guy who can step outside of the offense and make a lot of plays. He can make something happen while the shot clock is winding down and he makes good decisions on pick-and-rolls. If there is anything that he has to improve on, it's his leadership and being move vocal. … He has to have a willingness to make teammates play better."
Cleaves said Appling can step outside the offense also.
"Keith is a scoring point guard and he understands that," Cleaves said. "He's a guy that has to score and let the pass happen.
"If there's anything he has to be better in it's his decision-making."
Learning to adjust
Both players could use a Cleaves film session. There was a joy in the way he played. Cleaves spent time with teammates and learned their games. He knew where Morris Peterson, Jason Richardson and other teammates wanted the ball and where.
Cleaves was also a versatile guard. He could slug it out with Wisconsin or run with Florida. And when things went sour, it was usually Cleaves going off on teammates in the dressing room. Appling and Burke will never match Cleaves' intensity and desire to win. But there are other things they can do.
"What makes a good point guard is knowing your team," Cleaves said. "What can (a teammate) do and what can't he do. That is what helped me out and you also have to be able to play."
Appling and Burke can play. They have extreme confidence in their abilities. But Appling loses focus and turns the ball over at times. Burke stops running the show and becomes the show.
"These games are about adjusting on the fly," Cleaves said.
Appling and Burke must make those adjustments if Michigan is to land a team in the Final Four.