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MSU great Morris Peterson met the media before the 15th anniversary reunion of the 2000 championship team Saturday at Breslin Center.

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East Lansing -- They still keep in touch. They see each other pretty frequently. Talk to each other even more frequently. Heck, even their kids play together.

So it's not like they have years and years to catch up on when they show up at these things.

Still, there's just something special for the 2000 national-championship Spartans about returning to Breslin Center.

"You remember when you first came, the hype wasn't like this," the heart and soul of that Spartans team, Mateen Cleaves, said before Saturday's game -- coincidentally, between MSU and Florida, the same matchup as that 2000 championship final. "Nobody saw our visions but us, the 12-14 guys that were in the gym every day, the weight room every day.

"Looking back when we first came here and see that right now, we're the No. 1 team in the country! It's just something special."

The 2000 championship team -- one of just two MSU teams to win it all, and the most recent -- was honored at halftime of Saturday's game.

The turnout was impressive, with the stars and the reserves all coming back to reminisce on that magical run 15 years ago.

"It seems like yesterday. The time goes by fast. I can't believe this, 38 years old," Morris Peterson said. "The championship lives forever.

"To get a chance to be a part of this, every year it gets more and more special. You still have those great bonds, and you get to come back home and see the banner up.

"The important thing, my kids get a chance -- 'Oh, Dad, you played?' They questioned whether I played or not! I gotta let them know!"

But, they've seen the video, right?

"Man, did you see some of the video?" Peterson said, laughing. "It's starting to get grainy now. It's not HD."

'We didn't back down'

That 2000 MSU team was one for the ages, not just because it delivered the program's first championship since Magic Johnson was a student.

While Antonio Smith is credited with kickstarting this era of MSU basketball -- he was Tom Izzo's first big recruit; "Tone set the tone," Peterson said -- the senior class of 2000, including Cleaves, Peterson, A.J. Granger and Steve Cherry, started the run of greatness.

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MSU great Jason Richardson met the media before the 15th anniversary reunion of the 2000 championship team Saturday at Breslin Center.

MSU made the Final Four in 1999, losing to Duke.

It was on a mission in 2000, and nothing got in the Spartans' way -- not big deficits in the Sweet 16 (Syracuse) and Elite Eight (Iowa State), not Cleaves' ankle injury during the championship game.

"It's a bond that will never be broken," said Jason Richardson, a freshman on that team. "We're always going to be brothers for life. It just reminds me of all the battles we've been through to get to the ultimate goal.

"When adversity hit, we didn't back down from it."

Richardson, 34, said this year's MSU team, which entered Saturday's game 10-0, could learn from that.

Of course, Cleaves, Peterson and Richardson all said this year's team has a great chance to hang the third NCAA championship banner at Breslin Center.

Cleaves, in fact, thinks this year's team, which made a Final Four last year just as the 1999 team did before winning it all the next year, has a lot in common with the 2000 team.

"Everybody is selfless, you know. That's what reminds me so much of our team," said Cleaves, 38. "Nobody cared who scored or who got the attention. It was all about getting the win.

"Once you taste it, and you see it, that's what's gonna help this team. There's no substitution for experience. Just like my junior year, we got there, we got a taste, felt it, saw it, and next year we weren't caught up in all the hype, all the cameras. We didn't care about that. We cared about the game.

"We were focused on winning the national championship and cutting down the nets. I think that's what helped us out."

Izzo, of course, has made no secret that his focus is on winning title No. 2.

And this year's team, led by Denzel Valentine, appears his best bet since, well, 2000 -- all due respect to the 2009 team that made the title game, but was never going to slay mighty North Carolina.

"Here, it's changed," Cleaves said. "We're not cool with just winning the Big Ten, we're not cool with just going to the Final Four. We're happy when we win national championships, and this team has everything it needs to win a national championship."

Spirited atmosphere

Everybody was in a festive mood at Breslin Center on Saturday. Football coach Mark Dantonio took the court to fans they're gunning or "two more" wins, starting with the Dec. 31 semifinal against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Athletic director Mark Hollis was dressed as Santa Claus.

But the focus was on the 2000 team, which was represented by everybody but Charlie Bell, Adam Ballinger and Aloysius Anagonye.

That team finished 32-7 and delivered the second of coach Tom Izzo's seven Final Fours, but more importantly, wins over Valparaiso, Utah, Syracuse, Iowa State, Wisconsin and, finally, Florida (89-76) to secure the ultimate prize.

The members of the 2000 team met with Izzo and the team before the game, though they didn't speak. They just listened.

"Coach put on an awesome speech," Richardson said. "I was about to jump out of retirement, go on the court. I have two more years of eligibility!"

The 2000 championship team isn't just interested in basketball. Football's definitely on the mind, as well.

"It's been amazing. I can't leave my couch. I'm actually gaining weight," Richardson said. "It's amazing to see both programs at an elite status. That's what you want from your university, especially the basketball program, and now the football program is joining the elite ranks."

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MSU great Mateen Cleaves met the media before the 15th anniversary reunion of the 2000 championship team Saturday at Breslin Center.

The football team, ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff, is getting all the buzz these days. But it's easy to forget there was a time when the basketball program wasn't what it is today. There was a time when it, too, was the up-and-comer, after a few mediocre seasons later in the Jud Heathcote era.

It's easy to forget, of course, because these days, MSU is steamrolling toward a 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament -- and, seemingly, so much more.

The 2000 Spartans remember, though. They took a chance on a young Yooper named Izzo and a program that hadn't yet arrived.

And just look at them now.

"You look at the tradition of Michigan State history, I'm glad to be a part of that," Peterson said. "I want to keep it going. To see the Final Fours, getting back to the big games, man, it's great. I'm proud of this team, and I'm proud of what Coach has done. He taught me a lot about life, a lot about the game.

"I'm glad to be back."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

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