Monte Morris ‘ready for bright lights’: Mentor speaks about Morris’ ability to play on ‘biggest of stages’

Freshman guard Monte Morris holds his jersey up in celebration of the win against Kansas in the Big 12 Championship semifinals March 14. The Cyclones defeated the Jayhawks 94-83, advancing to the final round for the first time since 2000.

Dean Berhow-Goll

NEW YORK — As Monte Morris had the rare taste of losing in his mouth while walking off the court, having lost in the state championship as a sophomore, one of his idols pulled him aside.

It was Mateen Cleaves, a former three-time All-American for Michigan State who chose then and there to become the young man’s mentor. The two exchanging numbers sparked what would be one of the most important moments of Morris’ young development.

“He called me about a week after that and asked if I want to get in the gym, I can help your game get to the next level,” Morris said, sitting at his locker in Madison Square Garden. “Ever since then we’ve had that bond, that competitiveness. It just took off from there.”

Morris worked out with Cleaves in the off-seasons moving forward, Cleaves pushing him harder and further than he’d ever experienced playing as a standout for the Flint Beecher Buccaneers.

Soon the talk around Flint became this young kid at Beecher who found a way to win no matter if he was scoring 25 a night or dishing out 15 assists. 

“Coming up in Flint, you had to go see Man-Man play,” Cleaves said with a big smile, still sporting a Michigan State sweatshirt. “It was barbershop talk. You’ve got to go see Man-Man play and he was one of the guys that came up through Flint that had that effect, you had to go watch him play.”

His junior year was a coming out party for Morris. He averaged 18 points, six assists and five rebounds per game en route to the Final Four, which is Michigan’s version of the state playoffs.

The previous two years, Beecher hadn’t made it passed the semifinals, but in that year’s game, Morris dished out the biggest assist of his career, which to this day is the play he’s remembered for in Flint.

Against Detroit Consortium in the semifinals with 10 seconds left and the score tied at 36, Morris poked the ball loose on defense, received the outlet pass and in mid-air contorted his body to deliver a 50-foot pass to a teammate, who hit a buzzer-beater for the win.

“A 45-to-50 foot pass on the money with this kid off balance to win the game,” said Mike Williams, Morris’ high school coach at Flint Beecher. “He just made plays, he made winning plays. A lot of kids can make plays, but that kid made winning plays for us.”

Morris and Beecher won back-to-back titles in his junior and senior years, both hand-delivered by the local phenom who everyone simply knew as “Man-Man.”

Later his senior year, Morris upped his season averages to nearly 22 points and 10 assists per game. He was named Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, narrowly winning the award over Derrick Walton, who now starts at point guard for Michigan and Kentucky’s James Young. 

Before Morris’ departure out of the state of Michigan to Iowa State, three of the last four Mr. Basketballs went on to don the emerald of a Michigan State Spartan. So why does one of the most beloved players by Spartan fans — and most detested by Cyclone fans — of the last decade think about Man-Man leaving the state?

“I was surprised,” Cleaves said. “Michigan and Michigan State, they let a good one get out. I’m pretty sure these coaches at Michigan or Michigan State would love to have him.

“If you can have an opportunity to have Monte Morris on your team, anybody would love that.”

The thing about Morris, Cleaves says, is that he does whatever it takes to win. That’s why he won Mr. Basketball over the likes of the more flashy Walton and Young.

“He’s a winner,” Cleaves said. “He was always playing for a state championship, his teams always won and that’s what always stands out. He wasn’t going to wow you with dunks or athleticism, but what he did was his teams always won and there’s something to be said for that.”

Read here about Monte Morris’ journey from just a kid who told Tom Izzo he would be recruiting him to where he is now in “Monte’s Moment.”

ISU head coach Fred Hoiberg thinks the former Spartan standout and his young point guard have more in common than just hailing from Flint. 

“The thing you first look at is they’re both winners,” Hoiberg said. “Mateen, what he did, a lot of Cyclone fans will never forget that game. Both those guys ooze confidence. They’ll do anything it takes to win. I know they’re very close, he couldn’t be a better mentor for Monte to have.”

And even now, a full year removed from winning in back-to-back state titles, Morris is adapting, doing what it takes for Iowa State to win games.

Early in the year, Morris said he had to adjust to stay on the floor. The now-No. 6 ranked offense in the country didn’t need him to score. Instead he played defense and dished assists in bunches while sparingly turning the ball over, helping him on his way to an NCAA-record 5.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Now with Georges Niang out for the rest of the season, Morris has continued adjusting by scoring more. In his first two NCAA Tournament games, Morris is averaging 14 points per game — up from his season average of 6.6 — and shooting 50 percent from the floor while knocking down 4-of-5 3-pointers, including three crucial triples against North Carolina.

“This whole season, I feel Monte’s been an X-factor and hit key shots,” said Naz Long. “Monte’s not a freshman. He doesn’t play like a freshman. He doesn’t have the mindset of a freshman.”

Morris said that because of a sit-down with Coach Hoiberg after the end of the regular season, he was given more of a green light to fill up the box score in other ways he hadn’t done often in the regular season.

“He said be aggressive Man-Man,” Morris said. “Just go out there and have fun and I felt like it took all the stress off my shoulders and now I’m able to just play basketball.”

Now playing in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden, Morris’ mentor says that he lives for games like the one he’ll be playing in Friday night against the University of Connecticut, with yet another chance to show the nation that he thrives on the biggest of stages.

“He’s ready for the bright lights,” Cleaves said. “It’s something people shy away from, but he eggs that on. That’s that Flint in him. I’m so proud of him. I would say my little brother but I’m more like his dad. I just love what he’s doing, he’s making our whole city proud.”