The last time Mateen Cleaves took the floor against Michigan, he left a lasting impression not soon forgotten.
The Flint native dished out an MSU single-game record 20 assists in an overwhelming 114-63 victory in March 2000 against the Wolverines at Breslin Center, assuring the then-No.7 MSU men’s basketball team at least a share of the Big Ten championship. From there, the Spartans didn’t lose another game en route to the 2000 national championship against Florida.
It was the season that forever etched Cleaves in MSU lore, which certainly isn’t lost on the players of this year’s team.
“I really want to give a shoutout to our alumni players,” senior center Derrick Nix said Tuesday. “Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, Kelvin Torbert; it makes the game better when you see those guys in the crowd and how much they care to watch.
“That’s what got me going.”
Cleaves returned to Breslin Center on Tuesday as a spectator, fortunate to witness another drubbing as the No. 8 Spartans (21-4 overall, 10-2 Big Ten) routed No. 4 Michigan (21-4, 8-4), 75-52.
It was MSU’s most lopsided victory over the Wolverines since the 1999-2000 season, prompting Cleaves to reminisce of the significance of the MSU-U-M rivalry. And for Cleaves, it’s something he takes seriously.
“Whenever you play Michigan, it’s a big game,” Cleaves said. “That’s a big time rivalry. You’re playing for pride. When you get older, those are the games you still look back on and you’re still friends with some of the guys you played against at Michigan, so that’s a pride game.”
Now an analyst for CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports Detroit, Cleaves said it was an effort certain to earn his Spartans national attention.
“You’ve got to earn your respect,” he said. “That’s how we do it here. Don’t give us nothing. I like what they’re doing — they’re doing it the old fashioned way.”
Cleaves and fellow Flint native Bell have made multiple returns to the program this season to speak to the players and provide a voice of leadership as the team navigates the season.
The then-junior Bell also had a game to remember that day against the Wolverines. Bell scored 31 points — slightly less than half of U-M’s total — on 13-of-19 shooting from the field in a winning effort.
Now in his early 30s, with his professional basketball career waning, Bell often is an attendee at men’s basketball games, usually sitting across from MSU’s bench.
After what MSU was able to do against its in-state rival Tuesday, Bell said the team has done enough to establish itself among college basketball’s elite and is primed to make another postseason run.
“Coming into the season, nobody was really talking about them and you know, this was a good win,” Bell said. “They played some of the top teams out there already and I think they should have an idea that ‘OK, we are one of the top teams in the country.’”