Bloomfield Hills star Yante Maten blooms for Georgia

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Yante Maten wasn't necessarily the hottest commodity in the Michigan high-school basketball circuit, mostly because he was a late bloomer. Still, Oakland came after him. So did Detroit. And Michigan State probably made the most spirited push among the local schools.

But last April, the Bloomfield Hills standout surprised just about everybody when he passed on the Michigan State offer — and accepted one from Georgia, some 766 miles from home.

Now, Georgia is preparing to play Michigan State in a round-of-64 game in the NCAA Tournament.

That selection committee sure does have a knack of spicing up the early games, doesn't it?

"I thought, 'What are the chances of that?' " Maten told reporters, including one from the Albany Herald, after the draw was announced Sunday night. "I got a lot of text messages. People were saying, 'I wish I could see your face right now.'

"It's been crazy. I'm sure it will be a good game."

Georgia (21-11) was on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament after losing to Arkansas in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament, and ended up receiving the No. 10 seed.

Michigan State (23-11) clawed all the way to the Big Ten tournament final, where it lost to Wisconsin in overtime — and then earned a No. 7 seed.

The game is set for 12:40 p.m. Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has no shortage of story lines. Georgia coach Mark Fox and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo are friends, Izzo's nephew works on the Georgia staff — and then there's Maten, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward out of Bloomfield Hills High School.

Izzo wanted him. Maten's mom, Toiya Paige, attended Michigan State. But the decision was left all up to Maten, who has said repeatedly God nudged him toward Georgia. It reminded many of the decision he made in high school, choosing to play at public school Bloomfield Hills despite having an opportunity at ritzy Detroit Country Day. Maten is a huge believer in faith, and makes all his big decisions accordingly.

"Having grown up in the state, obviously this is a game that people will talk about," said Fox, in his sixth year at Georgia after five years as head coach at Nevada. "But I don't think that if we played the Montenegro National Team that Maten would be overly excited.

"It's still basketball."

That's Maten's reputation. He's not a kid that gets too overwhelmed by the situation. Just consider some of his best performances this season.

In the SEC tournament quarterfinals against South Carolina — a game Georgia probably had to win to seal its NCAA Tournament bid — Maten recorded his first collegiate double-double, 13 points and 10 rebounds. His best two games in the SEC came against undefeated juggernaut Kentucky, with 13 points and nine rebounds in a 69-58 loss in Lexington, and eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks in the a 72-64 loss in Athens.

And get this: He did all that and more after being struck by a car while using a pedestrian crosswalk on Georgia's campus on Jan. 11. He only missed one game, after suffering a concussion.

"He's better than I expected," Izzo told reporters Tuesday. "He's done a nice job for them. I think Mark has done a good job with him. I think he's grown a little bit, but he's going to be a very good player there. I really like him."

In 31 games (two starts), Maten has averaged 5.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 18.4 minutes for Georgia, whose coaching staff has become wildly impressed with his maturity beyond his 18 years — even though on the Georgia website, he cites his teddy bear among his prized possessions, calls himself a fan of SpongeBob SquarePants, and likes superheroes. Even back in high school, when his friends were watching sports, Maten said he was more inclined to watch cartoons.

Maten, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Michigan last year who led Bloomfield Hills to the Class A state championship game as a senior, was not made available to Detroit reporters this week. He did, however, talk to The Telegraph of Macon, Georgia, about his decision to attend Georgia and not MSU.

"They offered really late," Maten told The Telegraph, of MSU's pitch. "I always wondered why it took so long. But it didn't rub me the wrong way. Growing up, I didn't really come into my body until late. Growing up, I was pretty clumsy. That probably took a toll on if people thought I'd be good or not."

He's on his way, even if he's a long way from home.

Getting to know ...

Yante Maten, forward

College: Georgia

Age: 18 (Aug. 14, 1996)

Height/weight: 6-foot-8/240

High school: Bloomfield Hills

Career: Averaging 5.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in first season at Georgia. ... At Bloomfield Hills, averaged 19.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, 6.6 blocks and 4.8 assists as a senior in leading team to Class A championship game. ... Was named Gatorade Player of the Year for Michigan.

Did you know? His favorite food is the Frosty from Wendy's.