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To a Man, he's the Spartans' spark

Morris Peterson's rise as one of Michigan State's best players takes a roundabout path.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- Even over the din of a packed arena, Michigan State forward Morris Peterson can pick out the coaching instructions filtering down from the stands.

"Take that shot, Man."

"Box out, Man. Box out."

While a player is supposed to tune out the crowd's cheers and jeers, this is the unmistakable voice Peterson heeds, or else.

He knows his mother, Valerie Peterson, a basketball, volleyball and track star at Mississippi Valley State and a middle school basketball coach for two decades, grasps the nuances of the game.

"She's my No. 1 fan, but she's also my worst critic," he said. "My mother will tell me, "Man, she calls me Man, you didn't block out that time and your guy got a rebound on you,' or if I didn't take a shot from the corner, she'll tell me, "I can tell you're not working on it.' She stays on me, and that's helped me out."

Peterson, who picked up the nickname when he was a precocious 5-year-old, has blossomed into the man for the Spartans, overwhelming favorites to win the NCAA men's basketball title.

Senior point guard Mateen Cleaves is MSU's undisputed emotional leader and one of the nation's top playmakers, but the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Peterson is a dynamic offensive force. He has a textbook jump shot and a feathery left-handed touch. He has the speed and adroitness to beat bigger defenders off the dribble and the leaping ability and strength to overpower a more quick, but smaller foe.

He's the Spartans' leading scorer (16.6 points) and second-leading rebounder (6.1), the Big Ten coaches' choice for player of the year and a second-team All-American. He also was an easy pick as the most outstanding player of the Midwest Region.

"Body by God," Utah coach Rick Majerus said before the Spartans eliminated his team in the second round.

"Nowadays, when you come to play Michigan State," Cleaves said, "you've got to stop Peterson (first)."

It wasn't always that way.

Although a highly touted prospect out of Flint when he arrived in 1995, Peterson was immature and "a bit lazy," his mother said.

She would call him repeatedly and, along with her husband, Morris Sr., would make the hourlong drive to East Lansing regularly to make sure he was going to class and doing his homework.

"When he got here, he wasn't a very good player," senior center A.J. Granger said. "He struggled a bit with the system."

Especially on defense, which is the surest way to wind up on the bench next to coach Tom Izzo.

Izzo needled Peterson routinely, asking him in front of his teammates if he had found anyone on campus he could guard. Peterson didn't work hard and, in a way, it probably was a blessing that he broke a finger and sat out as a medical redshirt.

"Morris will be the first to tell you that a lot of people got on him early, from his family to other players to the coaching staff," Izzo said. "To his credit, he took that."

Peterson started most games the next season, averaging 6.8 points, but the turning point came in late November 1997 when he broke his right wrist. Although a lefty, the cast affected his shooting and he had to find a new way to contribute.

"I started playing defense and I started taking pride in it," he said.

Peterson had a breakout season as a junior, leading the team in scoring, second in rebounding. He was a first-team All-Big Ten pick. And he didn't start.

Izzo needed Peterson's spark off the bench and he embraced the role. He was most outstanding player of the Midwest Region and the team reached the Final Four for the first time since 1979.

"Every year has been a piece of the puzzle," Peterson said.

In the off-season, he continued to work on his skills and his studies. This year, he has dominated games. He's also on track to graduate in May with a degree in child development.

"He's a potential first-round draft pick now and that says a lot about him and all the work he's put in," Granger said.

"Just to see what he's done and what he's accomplished, I have a lot of respect for him," Cleaves added. "A lot of people kind of counted him out; they didn't think he could do it, and he beat all the odds. He works hard every day and, off the court, he's matured a lot."

He is a Man.

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