Against Florida's all-court pressure and endless bench, Michigan State faced something as different from Wisconsin as Gainesville is from Madison. But as Bell said before the game against the Gators, who had outrun North Carolina 71-59 in their semifinal to reach the championship game, "Everyone on this team played up-and-down style ball in high school."
In a ballroom at the Holiday Inn Select, breaking down film in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Izzo mulled over ways to solve Florida's pressure. "We can beat this," he told his assistants. "The key is getting the ball into the right hands." Everyone in the room knew whose hands those were. The Spartans already had three offensive sets with which to break a press, but Izzo decided to install a fourth: Cleaves would inbound the ball, step across the end line, then take an immediate return pass so he could look upfield, like the option quarterback he resembles in stature and style. At 2:15 a.m. Izzo took a phone call from former Michigan State star Scott Skiles, who is now the Phoenix Suns' coach. Skiles's team had recently beaten the Boston Celtics, who are coached by Florida coach Billy Donovan's mentor, Rick Pitino, and use the same full-court press as the Gators. Sure enough, Skiles suggested exactly what Izzo was considering, and vouched that the tactic had worked against the Celtics.
As it turned out, Michigan State never had to deploy that fourth option. Forward A.J. Granger was usually able to inbound to Peterson or Bell on the wing, and they then found Cleaves—"the streak-up guy," Izzo called him—bolting up the middle of the floor. Not once in the first half did the Spartans lose the ball in the backcourt. They broke the press every which way: with Bell and reserve forward Jason Richardson finding short jumpers and layups; with Cleaves releasing to field long passes for chippies; with center Andre Hut-son dribbling unharassed into the forecourt when Florida successfully denied a pass to Cleaves.
Michigan State so mastered the press that Donovan called it off with just under four minutes to play in the half, which ended with the Spartans leading 43-32. But refreshed by the break, the Gators pressed anew, and by the 16:18 mark they had pared the lead to six. That's when Florida guard Teddy Dupay, drawing a bead on Cleaves as he broke away once more, tried to end the frustration. He forcefully intercepted him, inadvertently hooking his right foot around Cleaves's right ankle, which struck the floor at a grotesque angle. Cleaves wound up in a grimacing heap by the baseline. "It's broke!" he mouthed. "It's broke!"
Izzo took a look at Cleaves, then returned to his huddled team and said, "We're going to war! They took out our leader. Who's going to step up?"
North Carolina had died against Florida when its point guard, Ed Cota, picked up his fourth foul. But Michigan State came to life. Bell returned to the point, his position during Cleaves's early-season convalescence, and played with unruffled purpose. Reserve Mike Chappell, who had struggled to find the basket most of the season, dropped in a three-pointer and a twisting putback. During the 4� minutes of action that Cleaves spent in the locker room—"I dropped a couple of tears," Cleaves would later say, "but I told the trainer he'd have to amputate my leg to keep me out of this one"—the Spartans actually extended their lead.
A scoreboard TV screen displayed the CBS feed directly across the arena from a great swath of Michigan State supporters, and soon they erupted at the sight of Cleaves making his way through a long backstage corridor toward the bench. If he could negotiate that distance on foot, he could surely return to the game. And he did, hobbling about for the final 12 minutes by the grace of ice, tape and a brace. But Cleaves's return was mere stagecraft. Florida was already broken.
A team can't set about completing a task without stipulating what needs to be finished. And Izzo planted the seeds of this title a year ago, in the hours following the Spartans' loss to Duke in the national semifinals in St. Petersburg. "After we got beat, we went back to the hotel and set our goals," he said last week. "Once you state them, the bull's-eye goes on your back. But if you don't make your statement, I'm not sure you get back to that level."
Still, the Michigan State coach said, "you almost feel guilty getting to the Final Four two years in a row," a comment of characteristic humility. Only two years ago, when Izzo was in his third season as Heathcote's replacement, it would have been hard to imagine his ever having the opportunity to utter such a sentence. Following a loss at home to Detroit that season, Izzo and assistant Tom Crean, now the coach at Marquette, tried to console themselves with a postgame drive. They stopped at a Burger King, then rode around East Lansing while Izzo underwent his own charcoal broiling on talk radio. "The comments were brutal," Crean recalled last week." 'He's in over his head'; 'They made a mistake'; ' Izzo's not ready for the job.' And Tom wouldn't turn the radio off. We turned it around that week—beat Wright State by like 30, went to South Florida and won, and a couple of weeks later beat Purdue at Purdue by 17. We were talking about that the other day, that we'd come a long way from that Burger King drive."
Yet even if the vox populi was raised against him, those who knew Izzo best always stood ready to grant him the benefit of the doubt. That same season, the Lansing State Journal ran a questionnaire inviting readers to sound off on what they thought of the Spartans' basketball coach. "It had like six major questions," Izzo says, and readers were asked to rate him from good to really awful on each. "I found out later that our football staff—every one of them, they and their wives—went out and got papers and filled them all out rating me high."