Michigan State was gaining steam as a basketball power under young head coach Tom Izzo. After being irrelevant through much of the 1990s, the Spartans made the Sweet 16 in 1998 and the Final Four in 1999. The 2000 Michigan State basketball team was ranked #3 to start the season and eyeing the big breakthrough.
A foot injury to Mateen Cleaves, the floor leader in both the backcourt and in emotional soul, slowed the Spartans in December, as they lost four games. But Cleaves came back, Michigan State found its footing, and finished the year 26-7.
Cleaves might have been the heart and soul, but no one could overlook Morris Peterson, the forward who won the Big Ten MVP award. Peterson, Cleaves and the rest of the Spartans were slotted as the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional for the 2000 NCAA Tournament.
The first weekend of March Madness saw wins over Valparaiso and Utah, and sent Sparty to the regionals. Now they would get a substantial home-crowd advantage. The venue was the nearby Palace in Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons.
Peterson scored 21 points to lead a win over Syracuse in the Sweet 16, setting up a game with two-seed Iowa State in the regional final. The Midwest might have seen its bracket play to chalk, but the rest of the field was ripped apart.
Not only were the Spartans the only 1-seed to even make it this far, but the Cyclones were the only 2-seed. In a year where two #8 seeds would reach the Final Four, along with a 5-seed, the Michigan State-Iowa State game was suddenly a heavyweight fight between the two best teams left in the field.
The Cyclones gave the Spartans a tough game, but Michigan State pulled away down the stretch. Peterson posted 18 points/7 rebounds and was named the regional’s Outstanding Player in a 75-64. Ironically, 75-64 was the same final score as when Michigan State had beaten Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA championship game, the legendary Magic Johnson-Larry Bird showdown.
Michigan State was going to Indianapolis for the 2000 Final Four, and given that a Big Ten city was hosting the event, perhaps it’s appropriate that the Spartans drew a conference rival in Wisconsin for the national semifinal. The Badgers were one of the two eight-seeds (North Carolina being the other) to work their way to the Final Four.
It was an ugly 19-17 game at half, before the Spartans pulled away to a 53-41 win behind Peterson’s 20/7 game. Florida, on the national stage under Billy Donovan for the first time, then ousted North Carolina in the second game of Saturday to make the Monday night final.
Peterson had another vintage performance with 21 points, while A.J. Granger chipped in 19 points/9 rebounds. But Monday night was about the captain.
Cleaves scored 18 and got credit for his leadership. Michigan State won 89-76, with Cleaves as Most Outstanding Player. The national championship trophy was back in East Lansing for the first time since the days of Magic Johnson.