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Ranking top 10 individual March Madness performances under Tom Izzo

These players had some epic performances.

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Michigan State basketball
© Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Who has flipped the switch the most and carried their fellow Spartans? Here are the top five March Madness performances under Tom Izzo.

Tom Izzo has led the Spartans now to 25 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, making him the all-time record holder, and the second-lengthiest program streak, only behind Kansas’ 32. While some seasons have been prettier than others, the Spartans have performed when they needed to in order to continue the streak.

Once into March, however, who has flipped the switch the most and carried their fellow Spartans?

I have compared 85 different individual players’ NCAA Tournament performances, applying points for average points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, tournament honors received, and how far they were able to lead their team in that tournament. With extra emphasis on more important stats such as scoring, assists, championships, prestigious awards, etc., the highest possible score is 780. A perfect score would indicate highest average stats, most tournament awards, and finishing with a national championship.

Will a member of Izzo’s 2022-23 team be added to the NCAA Tournament Spartan greats?

Here are the top five individual March Madness performances under Izzo’s command.

10. Travis Trice (2014-15), score of 409.5/780 – lost in Final Four 

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
19 3 4.2 0.4 0 All-Region Team

9. Adreian Payne (2013-14), score of 418/780 – lost in Elite Eight

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
20.5 6.5 1.3 1 1 All-Region Team

8. Charlie Bell (1999-2000), score of 429/780 – won national title

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
7.1 6 2.83 1.16 0 All-Tournament Team

7. Denzel Valentine (2014-15), score of 442.5/780 – lost in Final Four

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
15 7 3.6 1 0.2 All-Region Team

6. Draymond Green (2011-12), Score of 454.5/780 – lost in Sweet 16

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
18 14 6 1.3 0.7 All-Region Team

5. AJ Granger (1999-2000), score of 487.5/780 – won national title

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
11.8 4.3 1.7 0.2 0.5 All-Tournament Team, All-Region Team

AJ Granger was truly the X-factor for Tom Izzo and his 1999-2000 championship squad. Mateen Cleaves may have been the heart and soul of the team, but Granger was arguably just as important for the green and white.

For opposing teams, Granger was a matchup nightmare. Standing at 6-foot-9, the senior forward had the ability to be physical downlow, or step out and shoot the three. Seeing his 3-point percentage increase from 26 percent as a sophomore to 45 percent during his senior run, AJ added a third key piece along side Mateen and Morris Peterson.

During the 1999-2000 championship run, Granger helped in both the comeback against Syracuse, hitting clutch 3-pointers along with buzzer-beating layups, as well as the late run against Iowa State in the Elite Eight. Granger put up a game-high 18 points, successfully getting the crowd involved by hitting big shots when needed. When he wasn’t asked to score, AJ focused on other key parts of the game, securing seven rebounds in an ugly Final Four game against fellow Big Ten team Wisconsin.

In the national championship, Granger finished second in scoring for the Spartans, going 7-for-11 from the field and finishing with 19 points as well as grabbing nine boards.

While Cleaves or Peterson may get more recognition than Granger during the 1999-2000 national championship run, AJ was a true catalyst for Izzo’s only national championship season.

4. Kalin Lucas (2008-09), score of 511/780 – lost in national title

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
14.3 1.3 5.7 1.2 0 All-Tournament Team, All-Region Team

Often thought of as a top five point guard under Tom Izzo, Kalin Lucas became an immediate contributor once on campus. Averaging 10.3 points and 3.8 assists on over 25 minutes per game in just his freshman year, Lucas was quickly trusted by Izzo and co to lead the Spartans. While Kalin showed much promise in that first year for the green and white, it was his sophomore campaign that ranks in the best NCAA Tournament performances under Izzo.

After losing in the Sweet 16 his freshman year, Kalin took the necessary steps in order to better himself and the Spartans in his second year. Kalin would have a mediocre first 38 minutes offensively against Kansas in the Sweet 16, but turned it on when needed. Lucas would end up scoring seven straight in the final 49 seconds, finishing with 18, to send the Spartans to the Elite Eight with a 67-62 win over the Jayhawks.

During the Spartans’ Final Four in Detroit, Lucas fed off the crowd to upset the No. 1 UConn Huskies. Kalin would finish with 21 points and five assists to send Michigan State to its second national title game under Izzo. Unfortunately, even with having 14 points and seven assists, Lucas would not be able to get the job done at Ford Field, coming up short against the Tar Heels.

3. Morris Peterson (1999-2000), score of 537.5/780 – won national title

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
17.5 4.3 1.16 0.8 0.33 All-Tournament Team, All-Region Team

The highest points per game scorer in the top five, ‘Mo Pete’ provided much of the offensive firepower during his time at Michigan State.

Before being drafted 21st overall in the 2000 NBA Draft, Peterson was apart of the heralded Flintstones along with Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, Anthony Mull, and Antonio Smith. During his senior year, Peterson would start every game but one for MSU, averaging 17 points, six rebounds, and almost 43 percent from deep.

Peterson used his Big Ten Player of the Year momentum in 1999-2000 to help carry the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament. Eventually being named to the All-Tournament Team, Mo Pete continuously put on a show during the second halves of Michigan State‘s national championship march. During MSU’s Sweet 16 matchup against Syracuse, Peterson scored 16 of his 21 in the final 20 minutes of regulation, and during the Elite Eight against Iowa State, Peterson had all but five of his 18 in the second half as the Spartans mounted their comeback.

In the Final Four against Wisconsin, Peterson would finish with 20 of Michigan State’s 53 total points. He continued his offensive march in the national championship game against Florida, tying his tournament-high with 21 points and five assists. Peterson would eventually be inducted to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2019, thanks in part to his NCAA Tournament performance in the 1999-2000 season.

2. Goran Suton (2008-09), score of 543/780 – lost in national title

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
13 10.7 1.8 1.8 1.3 All-Tournament Team, All-Region Team

It’s easy for casual viewers of Michigan State to forget about the performance from senior Goran Suton in 2008-09. Coming to MSU as a four star recruit, the Lansing native had the good fortune to play alongside others on this list. Averaging over 25 minutes and almost 10 points per game, Goran played his part to perfection.

Specifically, Suton assisted in the double-digit comeback against reigning nation champions, Kansas, in the Sweet 16, scoring 20 points to go along with nine rebounds. Suton then led the way once again in the Elite Eight versus Louisville, and in the Final Four against Connecticut, putting up 19 points and 10 rebounds in both games.

Despite having to play extremely different styles of basketball in each round, an extremely slow pace in the Elite Eight against Louisville and then a fast paced style against UConn in the Final Four, Goran excelled nonetheless. While this Spartan squad’s luck ran out in the national title game against one of the best college basketball teams in recent history, Suton still performed well, scoring 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks, cementing himself as one of the greats for Tom Izzo in March.

1. Mateen Cleaves (1999-2000), score of 744.5/780 – won national title

Points/Game Rebounds/Game Assists/Game Steals/Game Blocks/Game Tournament Honors
14.1 2 4.5 1.16 0.28 Most Outstanding Player,
All-Tournament Team,
All-Region Team

While some others on this list may have come as a surprise, Mateen leading the way should shock no one. Easily considered one of the best players to play under Tom Izzo, Mateen had his best season in 1999-2000. After passing up on the NBA after his junior year, Mateen not only lead the Spartans statistically, he would go on to lead the entire tournament, winning the Most Outstanding Player.

Even with missing the first 13 games of the season, Cleaves came back and hit his stride in March. Through his strong leadership skills and his ability to make his teammates better, Cleaves lead the Spartans past huge deficits in the Sweet 16 against Syracuse, in the Elite Eight against Iowa State, and eventually led the Spartans head to head against Florida in the championship.

Cleaves started the national title game on a tear, helping MSU out to a 43-32 lead after going 3-for-3 from deep. It seemed only fate could stop Mateen from leading this team to a championship. Unfortunately, fate almost won as he would roll his ankle as the second half began. One of the most famous clips in MSU history is of Cleaves being helped to the locker room. Mateen allegedly told the trainer “they’d have to amputate it to keep me out of this one.”

Cleaves would make an emotional return and help lead the Spartans to their first national championship since Magic did so in 1979. In 1999-2000, Cleaves had one of the best NCAA Tournament performances of any player ever, let alone just at Michigan State.

Writer and contributor for Spartan Shadows. Tyler Dutton, a graduate of Michigan State, is a college and professional basketball specialist with over four years of experience writing on both the Spartans and Pistons.

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