Michigan State Basketball: Ranking the Greatest Leaders in Spartans History
Michigan State’s storied basketball program has historically been filled with passionate leaders. From the 1979 national championship-winning team, to the current Tom Izzo-led squads, State’s teams have earned a reputation for winning with cohesion and leadership.
Many of MSU’s best teams haven’t been the most talented in the country. But there is always at least one or two undeniable leaders or floor generals whose passion supersedes pure talent.
In ranking the greatest leaders in Spartan history, I accounted for each player’s leadership qualities, status within the squad and ability to make his teammates better.
This slideshow features the best leaders in MSU basketball history, according to those guidelines.
5. Mark Montgomery (1988-92)
Montomery was a four-year starter as the floor general for Jud Heathcote’s Spartans. The disciplined point guard led the show for an MSU team that went to a Sweet Sixteen in 1990 and won a game in each of the 1991 and 1992 NCAA tournaments.
He wasn’t the most high-octane scorer, but the experienced point guard was a tremendous passer. Montgomery dished out 6.3 assists in his senior year and finished fifth all time in school history in that category. His pass-first, team-first nature earned him the title of captain during his senior year.
Defensively, he was tone setting, disruptive and tenacious. Montgomery ranks third in school history with 168 steals.
Montgomery’s leadership on the court immediately molded him into a solid candidate for a coaching position. He coached alongside Tom Izzo for nine years, until he took over his current head coaching position at Northern Illinois.
He didn’t produce the most decorated career as a Spartan, but his inate ability to lead his team is remembered most clearly.
4. Travis Walton (2005-09)
Walton is mostly revered for his incessant effort and suffocating defense. The scrappy point guard’s leadership was acknowledged by Tom Izzo naming him captain for three straight seasons.
He helped lead the Spartans to four straight NCAA tournament appearances, highlighted by the team’s loss to North Carolina in the 2009 National Championship Game. Walton was a tone-setting defensive stopper, particularly in his senior season, when he won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.
What he lacked in offensive talent, he compensated for with nonstop effort. He played alongside the more offensively gifted point guard in Kalin Lucas, but Walton’s true worth shone through on the defensive end. He was also a capable passer, as his 555 assists rank seventh all time in Spartans history.
The Lima, Ohio product maximized his abilities as a Spartan, while always personifying the team-first attitude that all point guards should embody. The gritty Walton goes down as one of the best defenders and leaders in MSU basketball history.
3. Draymond Green (2008-2012)
The all-time leading rebounder in Michigan State history was the perfect byproduct of Tom Izzo’s system. Not only could he crash the boards, but he passed extremely well for a big man and could score in a variety of ways. Where he shined brightest, however, was how he led his team and maximized the talents of his teammates.
As a senior, Green completely took the reins as the team’s indubitable leader and captain. His senior year turned out to be one of the best in program history, as he secured the conference player of the year award and led MSU to a Big Ten title.
Green had a distinct ability to involve everyone on offense, even from the power forward spot. His three triple-doubles rank second in school history only to Magic Johnson, and he is one of only three players with over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Green blossomed into a versatile player, but his most profound characteristic was his ability to overachieve. He played with a contagious passion that captivated those around him. He progressed from an obscure role player as a freshman to the face of the program as a senior, much to the credit of his fantastic leadership within the team.
2. Magic Johnson (1977-1979)
The greatest Michigan State point guard of all time didn’t earn that title just from his dazzling no-look passes and commanding court vision. Magic’s contagious personality and undeniable focus morphed him into a great leader.
During his brief tenure as Michigan State’s point guard, Johnson led the Spartans to their first national championship. Throughout their dominant tournament run, they beat every team by at least 11 points, including Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the most watched championship game in history.
Magic ran the show for Jud Heathcote’s 1979 squad, which also featured another Spartan great, Greg Kelser. Together, the two stars led MSU to a 26-6 record. Johnson and Kelser were so vital to the team that the Spartans struggled the following year after both joined the NBA. MSU's record plummeted to 12-15 during the 1979-80 season.
It took only two years for Magic and company to conquer college basketball and reinvigorate America’s interest in the sport. Johnson’s dominance continued into the NBA, where he won the first of his five championships just a year after he left Michigan State.
Magic is one of the most visible leaders in the sports industry today, as his active involvement in the Lakers and part ownership of the Dodgers are nationally noted. His distinct leadership, however, has been prevalent ever since he was a 19-year-old kid, sporting the green and white.
1. Mateen Cleaves (1996-00)
Beating out Magic Johnson on any list is pretty rare, but Mateen Cleaves’ career as a Spartan finishes second to none.
Cleaves brought the program its second national championship. After a painful Final Four loss the year prior, he and Tom Izzo returned with a vengeance in the point guard's senior season.
While Cleaves racked up plenty of accomplishments—he ranks first in school history in career assists and steals—it was his willingness to lead a talented team that separated him from the rest. As the primary leader of the “Flintstones,” Cleaves headlined a backcourt that featured future pros Jason Richardson and Morris Peterson.
Cleaves led the Spartans to a Big Ten title and a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance as the third-year captain. Similarly to the 1979 national champions, the 2000 team won every game in the tournament by at least 11 points.
It was a dominant run led by a truly sensational player. Cleaves holds the all-time mark in career assists in Big Ten history and won the Big Ten Player of the Year award in back-to-back seasons.
He was supremely talented, but he wouldn’t have earned his reputation without a fierce will will to win and an unquestioned ability to lead. Cleaves is the consummate Spartan point guard, not because of his accomplishments, but because of how he reached those accomplishments.
He was the ultimate team player, while also standing out as a star. As Izzo’s favorite player he has ever coached, Cleaves tops the list of all-time greatest leaders in Michigan State history.