Time has a way of clouding the memory. Like a fog slowly blanketing the landscape, details can get fuzzy as the years pass.
Twenty years after Tom Izzo took his Michigan State team to a second consecutive Final Four, a trip that ultimately ended in the school’s second national championship, there are moments that aren’t quite as clear as they used to be.
What was the name of that tournament in Chicago when Michigan State beat Kansas in a top-five matchup? They didn’t have the Champions Classic back then. What loss was it that led to Izzo having his players suit up in football gear at the next practice? It was Wright State. No, maybe it was the loss at Ohio State.
While some of the particulars are debated two decades later, that moment on April 3, 2000, when Michigan State beat Florida at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, remains vivid for those who experienced it.
“I’m getting goosebumps right now,” Izzo said as he recounted the championship game.
“To realize that dream and actually achieve that, is very surreal,” forward Mike Chappell said.
“Just a release,” guard David Thomas said. “It was just like, ‘We made it. We did it. We accomplished this goal.’ There were a lot of tears and laughter.”
“It was the first time in my life I cried when the tears felt good,” guard Mateen Cleaves said.
Those memories are flooding back this week. The Spartans are doing their best to relive the pinnacle of their careers to that point even as the sporting world has been shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is no March Madness this year. If there was, there’s a decent chance Michigan State would have been preparing for another shot at a second title for Izzo. The Spartans had seemed to hit their stride as the regular season ended, winning five straight and capturing a share of a third straight Big Ten championship.
Instead, we’re watching old NCAA Tournament games. The 2000 national title game is a popular one. Izzo’s hair is a little darker, a little fuller. There’s Magic Johnson and Steve Smith in the stands, Steve Mariucci, too. They all look a tad younger. There’s Jud Heathcote, too, the longtime MSU coach and mentor to Izzo who died in 2017 at the age of 90.
And there’s the team. Cleaves. Morris Peterson. Charlie Bell. Andre Hutson. A.J. Granger. They look different, too. They look determined, unwilling to let anything stop them. That look, that attitude, that burning desire to be champions spread down the bench to youngsters Jason Richardson and Aloysius Anagonye as well as Thomas, Chappell and Adam Ballinger.
It didn’t appear at that moment, though. The journey to that point in the now flattened dome in Indianapolis began long before that night.
'Mission upon all missions'
Michigan State’s quest began, for the most part, a year earlier.
The Spartans rolled into the 1999 NCAA Tournament as Big Ten champs and the No. 2 team in the nation. They were led by Izzo, in his fourth season, and the Flintstones — Cleaves, Bell, Peterson and senior Antonio Smith. They cruised through the first two weekends of the tournament to reach the Final Four, the first for the program since Johnson and Heathcote brought home the title in 1979.
That Saturday night in St. Petersburg, Fla., Michigan State took on No. 1 Duke. The Spartans were in the fight, but in the end, the Blue Devils pulled out a 68-62 victory.
“We played Duke to a tough game,” Cleaves said. “But they had a better team all-around, to be honest. We were happy just to make it.”
From that moment, things changed at Michigan State.
Admittedly, the Spartans enjoyed the 1999 run. They hadn’t experienced it before and they relished the journey.
“We were excited every step we went further,” Cleaves said.
Once it all came to an end in the loss to Duke — which triggered ugly riots back home in East Lansing — it didn’t take long for things to shift.
“Our whole focus was to win a national championship,” Cleaves said. “We were laser-focused.”
Added Izzo: “There’s no question that when we lost that game the year before, it was a mission upon all missions. They didn't talk about it necessarily, at least around us. But that was the only goal. It wasn't who scored the most points, or who would go pro? It was one-dimensional goal — winning a national championship.”
It didn’t take long for that mission to become all-encompassing. There was no waiting until practice began that next fall.
In fact, it began days after the Final Four loss. The summer, the Spartans never stopped working toward the goal that Izzo later described as “an obsession.”
“We were all just together,” said Thomas, now the team’s director of basketball operations. “We were playing open gyms like three days a week, lifting three days a week, whatever was permitted. We were all working out nonstop in the summer. That's where we gained strength. We gained camaraderie. We gained connectedness. We were all grinding through it, and for the most part it was the same core guys, so we're all grinding in the summer.
“Coach always says the summer is where you win championships and for us, that's where it started.”
Spending an entire offseason in the gym isn’t exactly the most appealing way for a lot of students to spend the summer. But the Spartans were lucky. They followed a leader that has been virtually unmatched in Izzo’s time.
“It really comes down to leadership,” said Mat Ishbia, a walk-on and fan favorite. “Coach Izzo is the best in the country and having Mateen Cleaves as a leader on the team, not a coach telling you, but actually your peer, leading the team. Any team success starts with leadership and Mateen and Izzo are the best around. You look at all (Izzo’s) teams and his best teams usually had a guy like that. Mateen, Draymond (Green), even Travis Walton was a great leader. You follow those leaders and those are his best teams.”
Thomas never had any doubt as a part of the same recruiting class as Cleaves.
“Having Mateen from Day 1,” Thomas explained. “Just to listen to him, you knew that we were gonna win a championship.”
'Now the season really begins'
Before Michigan State could even get the mission rolling in the fall of 1999, it was dealt its first obstacle. Just weeks before the season was set to tip off, Cleaves broke his foot.
“That was hard,” Cleaves said. “That was a blow.”
Cleaves missed 13 games as Michigan State went 9-4 over a brutal stretch of nonconference games. Bell and Thomas moved over to help run the point and the Spartans managed their share of big wins, beating North Carolina on the road and knocking off Kansas in the Great Eight in Chicago.
There were losses, too. Texas beat MSU in the final of the Puerto Rico Shootout while Arizona and Kentucky both beat the Spartans in non-conference road games that really don’t exist anymore. But that was, and is, how Izzo rolls.
“Coach lives by that,” Thomas said. “Those teams were the powerhouses and he wasn't afraid to play them anywhere.”
While there were struggles, Michigan State also figured out how to play without Cleaves, something that would prove to be critical in the final game of the season.
After the inexplicable loss at Wright State, Cleaves returned and Michigan State started rolling. The Spartans lost just three more times the rest of the season and captured a third straight Big Ten championship. They won the conference tournament for the second straight year after that and headed to the NCAA Tournament ready to chase the dream they’d begun to pursue almost a year prior.
“For a team that was this focused on winning a championship and getting back,” Chappell said. “I mean, it was almost like, ‘OK, now the season really begins.’ That's kind of how we approached it.”
That’s not to say nothing mattered until that point. Winning the Big Ten was a big deal. Winning anything mattered, really. After all, it was all part of the process.
“If there was a trophy handed out, we wanted it,” Cleaves said. “That was our focus, and it was just fine-tuning everything. We wanted to be clicking on all cylinders going into March. That was our focus. Yeah, we wanted to win a Big Ten championship, a Big Ten tournament championship, but we wanted to be healthy and clicking on all cylinders going into March.”
'Nobody got a hall pass'
The engine ran smoothly the first weekend in Cleveland. Michigan State was the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and rolled over Valparaiso in the first round. Two days later it took care of a pesky Utah team to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row.
The luck of the draw that year landed the Spartans close to home for the regionals, playing at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Not far from campus and less than an hour from Flint, the home of the Spartans’ core, the building was rocking that weekend.
“It was special for me because it felt like the first time we took over the state,” Izzo said. “It felt like everybody in the state was pulling for us. Every gas station, every hotel had on their signs, ‘Go Spartans.’ That just hadn't happened in this state. And the fact that games were unbelievable (didn’t hurt).”
They were unbelievable, all right. Unbelievable in the sense that the Spartans were in big trouble in both.
On Thursday night against Syracuse, Michigan State trailed by 10 before storming back to a 75-58 victory. Two nights later, the Spartans trailed Iowa State by seven with just less than six minutes to play and rallied for a 75-64 win and a spot in the Final Four.
“I think we felt a little bit of the pressure in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight,” Izzo admitted. “I think we didn't play as good in parts and other parts we played unbelievable. But I think the pressure might have gotten to all of us.”
It was at halftime of the Syracuse game when Cleaves’ leadership and the tightness of the team was tested most. Izzo told the story then and it’s been retold many times over the years.
As Izzo got to the locker room, he walked in on Cleaves grabbing Peterson and challenging his boyhood friend. It was shocking to everyone but those in the room.
“That goes back to the summer,” Thomas said. “It goes back to us holding each other accountable and it was a situation where we were that close to getting to another Final Four and we weren't gonna let all that hard work just collapse on us. (Mateen) worked as hard as or harder than anybody on the team and that’s not how he was gonna go out. We all just rallied around each other and picked each other up. That's the kind of relationship we had.”
“There were a lot of friendships, but nobody got a hall pass,” Izzo added. “Everybody was held accountable. They were held accountable by the head coach, by the assistant coaches, by the trainers, by each other, by the managers. I mean, everybody was held accountable. It was the damnedest thing, man.”
It was business as usual for Cleaves and the rest of the Spartans.
“That was the good thing about us,” Cleaves said. “We would do stuff like that all the time and guys didn’t take it personal. But that was my role on the team. A million times that year I told (Peterson) I loved him. ‘Great play, keep it up, great job.’ So the few times we had those incidents that was overshadowed by the millions of times that we hugged each other and embraced each other and challenged each other.”
'Here we go again'
By the time Michigan State arrived in St. Louis, it knew what was next — a fourth matchup that season with Wisconsin.
It’s never a treat to play the Badgers, but four times in once season?
“Oh my God,” Cleaves thought. “Here we go again.”
Michigan State had beaten Wisconsin in all of the first three matchups, the most recent in the Big Ten tournament. But a fourth time?
“You knew it was basically going to be a boxing match,” Chappell said. “They know every play we run, they know our rotations, they know who's coming off the bench to do what, and vice versa. So it really was a grudge match, a grind.”
It played out just as most expected. The Spartans slugged their way to an ugly 53-41 win and moved on to face Florida — the exact opposite of Wisconsin — in the title game two days later.
This would be more to Michigan State’s liking, facing a team that liked to push the tempo and pressured the full length of the court. The Spartans didn’t get to show it much in the Big Ten, but they were ready to run, too.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is my type of game,’” Cleaves said.
To prepare, Izzo was ready to work his team hard on Sunday. Two practices were on the docket along with plenty of work for the coaches. But not long after the team got to the hotel late on Saturday, Izzo got a visitor.
“There's knock on my door and it's Mateen,” Izzo recalled. “That was when he goes, ‘Coach, the guys are a little tired.’ I never heard that out of Mateen in four years. He says, ‘I think one would be great.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, and we’ll be ready to practice tomorrow and play Monday.’ I said, ‘No problem,’ shut the door and changed my plans. He was the player-coach on that.”
It paid off as Michigan State came out firing, taking an 11-point lead at halftime.
But less than four minutes into the second half, everything stopped. Cleaves had crumpled to the floor, screaming in pain while grabbing his right ankle after coming down on the foot of Florida’s Teddy Dupay.
“God. Why? Not now,” Cleaves recalled thinking. “Lord, there’s no way in the world it’s gonna end like this for me.”
Cleaves looked to the bench, screaming that he broke his ankle. Izzo came out to check on his leader. He had no clue how bad the injury was but told Cleaves at that moment, “Mo, you gotta finish the game.”
Within seconds, Cleaves had bounced up and was limping to the locker room. Minutes later, after Cleaves had tape and a brace applied to his right ankle, he started the long limp back to the stadium floor.
The crowd started to buzz as the video board showed Cleaves headed to the court. He hopped on the raised playing surface and made his way to his coach.
“What do you think?” Izzo asked. Cleaves told his coach he was ready. Nothing was going to stop him with a championship within reach.
While Cleaves was out, the Spartans leaned on the experience of playing the first 13 games without their star. Chappell buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key and the lead expanded from six to nine, one MSU held by the time Cleaves was back.
The advantage grew from that point as Cleaves’ mere presence willed Michigan State to what turned out to be a dominating, 89-76 victory.
Elation ensued. The players danced at midcourt. Smith joined in to cut down the nets. Izzo and Cleaves embraced and shared tears as “One Shining Moment” played overhead.
The mission had been accomplished.
“Everything flashed through my head,” Cleaves said. “Everything I've been through, up to that point, dribbling a basketball out in the backyard with my big brothers or playing at the park or just dreaming about having an opportunity. Then everything we had been through as a team and the adversity we had to overcome to get to that point … man.”
'It was just priceless'
Twenty years later, they’re the old guys.
The team was back in East Lansing in February. It was odd for the guys that remember being on the bench as players when the 1979 team came back to celebrate.
“We looked around like we were the old guys that used to play here years ago,” Cleaves said. “We all got laugh out of that one.”
Nearly everyone made it back for that reunion. Anagonye came in from France where he still plays professionally. They soaked it all in, glancing at times to the banner that still hangs from the Breslin Center rafters.
“As I get further and further away from it,” Chappell said, “I think it is something that becomes more and more special and something.”
Izzo appreciates it, too. He’s been battling ever since for that second national title. The Spartans got back to the Final Four in 2001 but lost in the semifinals to Arizona. Five more trips to the Final Four have failed to deliver, as well. Semifinal losses awaited in 2005, 20010, 2015 and 2019 with a loss to North Carolina in the championship game in 2009.
There have been outstanding players and amazing chemistry, but those teams simply didn’t measure up to 2000.
That group had it all — a leader, a Hall of Fame coach and a bond that was impossible to break.
“It was just priceless,” Izzo said. “I’d coach until I’m 90 if I could have that again.”
The road to glory
FIRST ROUND, CLEVELAND
No. 1 Michigan State 65, No. 16 Valparaiso 38
Michigan State took care of business against 16th-seeded Valparaiso. The Spartans suffocated the Crusaders, holding them to 25 percent shooting (13-for-52) as they built a 30-point lead. Mateen Cleaves scored 15 points and handed out eight assists while Morris Peterson scored 12 for the Spartans.
SECOND ROUND, CLEVELAND
No. 1 Michigan State 73, No. 8 Utah 61
The upset-minded Utes led by three at halftime but the Spartans took over in the second half. Cleaves scored 13 of his 21 points in the second half to rally Michigan State to victory, a theme that would play out the following weekend as MSU headed home to play at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
REGIONAL SEMIFINAL, AUBURN HILLS
No. 1 Michigan State 75, No. 4 Syracuse 58
The Spartans found themselves down by 10 at halftime, but thanks to a locker room outburst from Cleaves and a raucous home crowd, Michigan State rallied in the second half. All five starters scored in double figures, led by 21 from Morris Peterson and 19 from A.J. Granger.
REGIONAL FINAL, AUBURN HILLS
No. 1 Michigan State 75, No. 2 Iowa State 64
Once again, the Spartans were in trouble, trailing Iowa State by seven late in the game. But the hometown crowd sparked a 23-5 run to close the game, highlighted by a lob from Cleaves to Peterson that brought the house down. Peterson and Granger each scored 18 while Andre Hutson added 17.
NATIONAL SEMIFINAL, INDIANAPOLIS
No. 1 Michigan State 53, No. 8 Wisconsin 41
The Spartans were accustomed to grinding out games over the Badgers, beating their Big Ten rival for the fourth time that season. Peterson came alive in the second half and scored 20 points while Hutson recorded a double-double to send the Spartans to the title game.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, INDIANAPOLIS
No. 1 Michigan State 89, No. 5 Florida 76
This was a shootout and the Spartans came out full loaded. They jumped out to an 11-point lead at halftime and managed to extend their lead after Cleaves suffered an ankle injury that forced him to miss a few minutes and hobble his way to the finish. Peterson scored 21 while Granger had 19 and Cleaves 18 to give MSU its second national title.