You have to be pretty darned good to get the kind of freedom Michigan State point guard Mateen Cleaves gets on the basketball court.
Cleaves, who will take the Spartans into an NCAA East Regional semifinal against No. 1-ranked North Carolina tonight, was allowed to miss 16 shots as the Spartans were upset by Minnesota in the Big Ten Conference tournament.
He was still shooting as time ran out at the end of a two-for-18 day.
He's also so good he practically beat Princeton by himself last week, scoring 27 points, dishing out five assists and grabbing nine rebounds when he wasn't otherwise engaged.
He's so good that Michigan State, picked to finish in the second tier of the Big Ten, was the surprise regular-season co-champion and Cleaves, a sophomore with measureless moxie, was the even more surprising Big Ten player of the year.
"Some guys are built to be leaders, and he's one of them," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "He has a fearless football mentality. Being so young, we don't have a of guys like that, which has made Mateen even more important to this team.
"Mateen is a funny kid. He does whatever I ask him to do. . . . He always goes into the game doing whatever we need to win."
You don't have to tell Princeton's Bill Carmody, whose team trailed by two points in the final minute when Cleaves took a stunning, ill-advised NBA-range three-pointer with eons left on the shot clock . . . and sank it.
"I'm very impressed with the kid, believe me," Carmody said. "He dominated the game. We were never able to contain him, driving, hitting threes on long shots. We didn't have an answer."
The East Regional semifinals might as well be a convention of kid point guards. Really, only Arizona's Mike Bibby is missing. Cleaves and North Carolina's Ed Cota are sophomores, and Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin is a freshman.
They're all very, very confident and very, very good.
Cleaves averages 16 points and seven assists, and had 34 points and nine assists against Northwestern in January. Cota averages less than four points but contributes seven assists for the Tar Heels, who hardly need him to score. And El-Amin, who will take his team against Washington in the other semifinal tonight, averages 16 points and four assists and has scored at least 29 points in five games this season.
Cota figures to guard Cleaves, with help from Shammond Williams and Vince Carter. And if the Tar Heels and UConn both win, Cota will get El-Amin next.
"We have different roles for our teams," Cota said. "I'm not even looking at the game as me against Mateen Cleaves. I know what I have to do."
Time was when Cleaves' name was mentioned more than anything for being the Michigan recruit in the Ford Explorer driven by Maurice Taylor that rolled with five Michigan players in it on the way home from a party in 1996.
The accident caused no apparent injuries other than a broken arm to the Wolverines' Robert "Tractor" Traylor, but it spurred NCAA interest in the Michigan program, partly questioning how Taylor, now with the Clippers, could afford the vehicle, which proved to be leased to an aunt.
Cleaves ended up at Michigan State, but he had a back injury that might have been caused in part by the accident, although he'd had some trouble with his back as a high school football player.
In any case, with two cracked vertebrae, Cleaves was put in a body cast that didn't come off until shortly before practice started before his freshman season. He was no longer the same player.
"I got hurt, and I'd always been a football player and ate a lot. I just gained a lot of weight. I slowed down," Cleaves said. "Last year, I couldn't guard anybody, I couldn't go by anybody, and I had no confidence."
At 6 feet 2, he weighed as much as 220 pounds.
"I used to call him Bettis, for Jerome Bettis," teammate Antonio Smith said.
Cleaves averaged 10 points and five assists in a so-so season that did nothing to presage this season. But he dropped 25 pounds last summer, and that has made all the difference, although North Carolina's Williams still says, "That guy looks like a linebacker to me."
He found himself in another scrape this season when he was arrested on under-age alcohol charges last month, celebrating a big win earlier that night over, of all teams, Michigan.
Izzo suspended him for the first half of a game against Wisconsin, a penalty some people considered lax.
"Coach has meant a lot to me, when times were hard," Cleaves said. "He's really stayed with me, and that time, Coach made a decision he knew he would take heat for."
Cleaves didn't take as much heat as you'd think for his two-for-18 game against Minnesota. Michigan State fans know he carries them often enough.
"I'm going to have off-nights. I'm not God. Michael Jordan has off-nights," Cleaves said.
Speaking of Jordan, plenty is being made of North Carolina's tradition and home-court advantage in Greensboro.
Michigan State has a little tradition too, though. Before a big late-season game, Magic Johnson visited and spoke to the team.
"It's big when Magic shows up. The guy's a legend at Michigan State, in the NBA, in the world," said Cleaves, who is only four steals shy of tying Johnson's school season record for steals with 75, set in 1979.
"Everything Magic tells me, I try to listen to, and I watch how he carries himself," Cleaves said. "You can learn a lot from Magic."