Among those who are surprised by the Spartans' surge to the top of the Big Ten, where they sat with an 8-1 record at week's end and a No. 16 ranking in the latest AP poll, no one is more stunned than Izzo. His Spartans, after all, are callow (along with Ohio State, Michigan State is the youngest team in the Big Ten) and injury-riddled ( Izzo's one senior starter, guard Thomas Kelley, is out for the season with a broken foot). "I don't know how we're doing this," says Izzo. "We're not that good."
That, of course, is just his opinion. "They have the best roster in the Big Ten in the last five years," Indiana coach Bob Knight said after the Spartans had knocked the Hoosiers into fourth place in the conference.
Foremost on that roster is sophomore point guard Mateen Cleaves, a former high school All-America from Flint, Mich., who is now fully recovered after being hampered by a back injury during his freshman season. He's the latest in a line of charismatic and court-savvy point guards at Michigan State, where Magic Johnson and Scott Skiles were stars. Cleaves had 13 assists against Indiana to raise his average to 7.7 per game, tops in the Big Ten. He followed that up with a 34-point, nine-assist, six-steal performance in a 72-66 overtime defeat of Northwestern last Saturday. "Last year I felt like I was playing with seven winter coats on," says Cleaves. "Now I feel like I've taken them off."
Freed of back pain, Cleaves has helped establish a strong work ethic among the Spartans. Against Indiana, Michigan State had 14 steals and a 46-26 advantage on the boards. (The Spartans led the Big Ten in rebound margin, with a +9.6 at week's end.) "Loose balls and deflections are what win games for us," says assistant Tom Crean, who charts deflections, along with points, rebounds and assists, at every practice and game. "This isn't a team that can just show up and win and they know it."
The Racers Are In High Gear
It may sound redundant to say that Murray State senior guards De'Teri Mayes and Chad Town-send came out of nowhere to form the best backcourt you've never seen, but it's true. Each took a roundabout path to Murray, Ky., where the Racers, despite six NCAA berths in the last 10 seasons and a 20-3 record at week's end, toil out of sight of myopic TV programmers and poll voters.
Mayes, who was averaging 20.8 points through Sunday, never played high school basketball. Now he scores as if he's making up for lost time. When Murray State defeated Middle Tennessee State 78-75 last Thursday to move into a first-place tie in the Ohio Valley Conference, Mayes scored eight of his 30 points in a span of a minute and 35 seconds.
Townsend, the point guard, is a 25-year-old Air Force veteran who handles the ball with military precision (117 assists, 44 turnovers). After his second season at St. Edward's University, a Division II school in Austin, Townsend paid his own way to a junior college camp in Florida, hoping to catch the eye of a Division I coach. That's where Murray State assistant Tevester Anderson discovered him.
"D.T. and I have talked a lot about getting where we are," Townsend says. "We were unknown, unheard of." They're now well known in Fayetteville, Ark. The Racers celebrated Christmas Day in Puerto Rico by drumming Arkansas (now ranked No. 14) 94-83. Mayes scored 42 points. He's the human Drudge Report—he tosses up shots from all over, and he's accurate nearly half the time. He's shooting 46.6% from the field, including 42.8% from three-point range. "He doesn't get his points just one way," his coach, Mark Gottfried, says. "There aren't a lot of guys like him who can make a 22-footer, a 12-footer, a 16-footer and an eight-foot bank shot."
Mayes spent his high school years in Montgomery, Ala., struggling both on the court and in the classroom. One high school coach told him not to bother coming out because the team was already set. Mayes settled for playing summer league "ratball" at a local community center. A cousin convinced Glen Hicks, then coach at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala., to give Mayes a shot, and in his second year in Hanceville, Mayes hiked his three-point accuracy to 42.2% and began to attract the attention of big-time recruiters.