Guards lead the way for NCAA Tournament's Final Four
Posted: Tuesday March 23, 1999 03:07 PM
Four of the best point guards in college basketball are headed for St. Petersburg this weekend for the NCAA Tournament's grand finale. Each has had a major impact in his team's success -- but only one will lead his team to the title. Most teams have had trouble containing Duke's William Avery, Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin and Ohio State's Scoonie Penn, but Sports Illustrated has covered the group from the start of the season. Read on for highlights:
William Avery, Duke
Point guard William Avery arrived at Duke last season already forged by a trip he took as a high school junior to meet [Duke coach Mike] Krzyzewski, who had bluntly told Avery that with his mediocre grades he would never be a Blue Devil. Avery walked out of the room, turned to his mother and said, "I am going to Duke." After switching from his high school in Augusta, Ga., to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia as a senior, he made the grade and has since launched more fearless game-deciding shots than any other Blue Devil, including a last-second miss in last year's NCAA loss to Kentucky. -- Tim Crothers, 2/22/99
Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State
His confidence is boundless, which is amazing, considering what he, and therefore the Spartans, endured during a two-week span early in the season. They lost three games, all on national TV, all against Top 10 teams, in large part because Cleaves played about as poorly as he ever does. On Nov. 20, at Temple, he had 17 points -- along with 10 turnovers and several bad fouls. The Spartans lost 60-59. On Dec. 2, in a 73-67 loss to Duke in the Great Eight tournament in Chicago, Cleaves shot 3 for 17 from the field. Three days later, at Connecticut, Cleaves shot 2 for 15, and the Spartans lost 82-68. Questions were being asked. This is the guy who was an All-America last year? This is the guy some people are talking about as an NBA lottery pick? This is the guy who wants the ball with the Penn State game on the line? Yes, yes, yes.
You see the exuberance with which he plays basketball? That's God at work, [his mother] Frances will tell you. Mateen is ... one of the best at his position playing in college today. That's what NBA scouts will tell you. His shot -- he launches it from down around his right shoulder, sixth-grade style -- is not a thing of beauty. His numbers (11.9 points per game, 7.1 assists, 2.2 steals) won't blow you away. What he does is beat you. The Spartans know that as Cleaves goes, so goes their team. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been saying for months that he hopes Cleaves is ready for the NBA draft in June, even though Mateen says he wants to return for his senior year.
After the Dec. 3 loss to Duke, and the loss to Connecticut three days later, the Spartans were 4-3 and sinking fast in the polls. They won their next seven games against unranked opponents, but on Jan. 6 they lost a Big Ten game, to Wisconsin, which was ranked 24th at the time. Then came the game that turned Michigan State's season around. On Jan. 9, on a Saturday night in East Lansing, Michigan State played Michigan. The Spartans were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1978-79 national championship team. Magic Johnson, the kingpin of that team, was in the house. Cleaves was warming up when somebody approached him and said, "Earvin wants to see you, right away."
Cleaves ran off the court and met Johnson, who got right to the point. "I've been watching some of your games," he said. "It looks like you're not having any fun."
"I think I'm trying too hard," Cleaves said.
"I've been there," Johnson said. "But you have to remember why you're playing. You're playing basketball 'cause it's fun. Now go out and have fun."
"Everything Magic was saying, I had been hearing that from my teammates, but hearing it from Magic just drove it home," Cleaves says. "I was trying to do too much. You come out, you know everybody's saying, 'Look at this guy, he's supposed to be an All-America.' I was trying to take the heat off my teammates by doing everything myself. At the Michigan game I made the decision that I would rely on them. That freed me up. I made the decision to enjoy the game." -- Michael Bamberger, 2/15/99
Khalid El-Amin, Connecticut
El-Amin is a yapping, trapping, energy-sapping whirlwind whose light-footed moves make one overlook the fact that his body is shaped like a shot put. Listed at 5'10" and a Gingrich-conservative 203 pounds, he has heard all the insults, such as "doughboy," a name frequently shouted at him last year. That was nothing, though, compared to the wise guy at Virginia who approached him during warmups carrying a Domino's pizza box and asked if he was hungry. "That was pretty funny," says El-Amin, "but we won, so I got the last laugh." -- Grant Wahl, 12/21/98
Floating around the UConn basketball offices is a photo album of the team's trip in August to Europe and the Middle East. There are snapshots of players standing in front of Buckingham Palace, frolicking in the Dead Sea and strolling along the cobblestone streets of Nazareth. But none of these pictures brings a twinkle to the eyes of coach Jim Calhoun quite like the one of squarish point guard Khalid El-Amin smiling brilliantly as he sits astride a camel outside the Israeli city of Tiberias.
"We go for a camel ride and none of the kids want to get close to the camels because they're afraid of getting spit on or bitten," recalls Calhoun. "Then here comes Khalid yelling, 'Follow me.' He jumps on a camel, and sure enough everyone follows him. That's when I realized I've got a kid who knows how to lead."
By leading the charge of the camel brigade, El-Amin showed Calhoun just how much he has grown since last season, when he helped UConn set a school record for wins. -- Lars Anderson, 11/23/98
Scoonie Penn, Ohio State
Before James (Scoonie) Penn could help put Ohio State back on the basketball map, he had to learn how to find it on a map. "Ohio? Where's Ohio?" he asked Jim O'Brien, his coach at Boston College, when O'Brien announced two years ago that he was leaving for Columbus. "The perception in the Northeast is that there's only one stoplight out here," says O'Brien.
Most folks had forgotten that basketball was played there, too. Penn led BC to the second round of the NCAA tournament in his freshman and sophomore years but then headed to Ohio State after O'Brien split with BC over what he felt were admissions policies that unfairly thwarted his recruiting. While sitting out last year, Penn fought through a "state of depression," as he puts it, by treating practices as if they were games. Says O'Brien, "Most of the time Scoonie would play on a team with three walk-ons and another player and beat our first team." -- Grant Wahl, 2/22/99
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