Tom Izzo has had plenty of elite Michigan State basketball over the past couple of decades. Who’s on the post-2000 Mount Rushmore?
Countless, McDonald’s All-Americans, dozens upon dozens of top-100 and top-50 recruits, Mr. Basketballs, and Gatorade Players of the Year have called East Lansing home. He’s recruited every time zone (especially in the 2023 class) and he’s built himself a Hall of Fame career.
Throughout the years, there have been a handful of players who have stood out above the rest. Guys who would make a good case for “Mount Rushmore” in Michigan State basketball history.
Since I didn’t start really paying attention to MSU basketball until I was in third or fourth grade (because I can’t remember), I thought it’d be fun to do a post-2000 Mount Rushmore for the program.
Everyone knows that Shawn Respert, Steve Smith, and Magic Johnson each have a strong case to make the all-time Mount Rushmore, but let’s focus on the past two decades.
It’s hard to narrow it down to just four Michigan State basketball legends, but I did my best to choose a post-2000 Mount Rushmore.
First, I have Cassius Winston.
This one was easy for me not only because of a little recency bias but also because he was that good. Cassius did things with the ball in his hands that we’ll probably never see again. He was a generational point guard in East Lansing and I think he’s the best Tom Izzo has ever had at the position.
Cassius was the ultimate college point guard. He was slippery, crafty, and finished at the rim with what felt like 100 percent shooting percentage. He made every circus shot and he’s also Michigan State’s all-time assists leader. He was special and his No. 5 should be in the rafters soon. It’s a shame that COVID-19 cut his career short because 2019-20 felt like a national title season.
If I were to start a college team and I had to choose from Mateen Cleaves and Cassius in their primes, I’d choose the shy kid from Detroit Jesuit.
The All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year will never have to pay for a drink in East Lansing again.
Denzel Valentine is next up. He’s the second-most recent addition to the post-2000 Michigan State basketball’s Mount Rushmore, but you can’t seriously have one of these without him. People forget just how dominant he was as an upperclassman.
Though his career got off to a slow start and he earned the nickname “Tragic Johnson” from Izzo, he finished it as strongly as a player could. Plus, he was a local kid and fan favorite.
I was a doubter of Valentine through his first two seasons as he seemed to make poor decisions with the ball and tried to be too fancy with it. He really broke out as a junior, averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists while improving every shooting metric. Valentine did so yet again as a senior, averaging 19.2 points, 7.8 assists, and 7.5 rebounds. He led what many — including myself — believe was the most complete regular-season MSU team in a decade.
Unfortunately, the former NABC Player of the Year and All-American seems to slip through the cracks because his career ended with a Middle Tennessee loss. He was better than that.
OK, this one had to be the most obvious. The former all-time great Spartan leader and current NBA champion was an incredible talent after beginning his career as a three-star.
Like Denzel, Draymond Green was named the NABC Player of the Year and won the Big Ten Player of the Year award. He did a little of everything while he was in East Lansing and he was a phantom whistle shy of making the national title game against Duke as a sophomore. That play still haunts him and Butler’s Gordon Hayward even admits that he wasn’t fouled. OK, let’s stop talking about it, I’m getting upset.
Draymond was basically Izzo’s protege as a player-coach and held all of his teammates accountable. He was the perfect captain and he was a triple-double threat each time out.
As a senior, he had a huge year, averaging 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game. He also shot the ball pretty well — NBA fans would never believe it. Draymond was also an elite defender and that’s translated to the NBA where he’s won multiple defensive player of the year awards.
Love him or hate him, Draymond is a Spartan legend.
Mateen Cleaves delivered Izzo his only national title. It’s hard to overlook that.
But many Michigan State fans would choose Cassius over Cleaves if given the option. That doesn’t make Cleaves any less of a Spartan legend. In fact, if you’re anything like me, he was your first favorite Michigan State basketball player. Growing up during the early years of Izzo, Cleaves was the inspiration to my basketball playing career (that didn’t exactly last a lifetime).
Mateen led the Spartans to a Final Four as a junior and won it all as a senior. Many believed Cassius was on the verge of that same fate. Cleaves was also the program’s all-time leader in assists; Cassius broke that record. Both are very similar, but Cassius was a better offensive threat while Mateen was an overall great player and leader.
Cleaves led vocally and Cassius led by example. You can’t go wrong with either one.
A three-time All-American, three-time All-Big Ten selection, and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, Mateen was one of Izzo’s first legends.
He makes the post-2000 Mount Rushmore because he won a national title in 2000 even though he played just a handful of months after the turn of the century. This is the perfect player to round out the Mount Rushmore.
Who would you put on your post-2000 Mount Rushmore? Did I miss anyone?