COLUMBUS, Ohio — There's a thread running through Michigan State's program that connects the decades and NCAA titles — three players intertwined by talent, charisma and leadership skills.
From Magic Johnson to Mateen Cleaves to Draymond Green.
Johnson and Cleaves, floor generals of different sizes whose smiles were as radiant as their spellbinding games, carried their teams to championships.
Green is trying to be next.
After recording his second career triple-double in an NCAA tournament game, Green will try to push the top-seeded Spartans one step closer to a third national title on Sunday when they play No. 9 seed Saint Louis, coach Rick Majerus' tough-nosed, disciplined team which plans to "muck it up" against the Big Ten powerhouse.
A few days after getting a tournament pep talk from Johnson, who shared some of his secrets for March success, Green scored 24 points with 12 rebounds and 10 assists Friday night as the Spartans (28-7) powered past LIU Brooklyn 89-67, putting away the No. 16 Blackbirds with an all-out assault in the final 10 minutes.
Green joined Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only players in tournament history to have more than one triple-double — at least 10 points, rebounds and assists.
"He doesn't have a weakness," Majerus said, "and I think best of all is his attitude. Of all the high scorers in America, collegiately, at every level, he probably lets the game come to him more than anyone else, which is a great testimony to the kid."
Majerus won't get any argument from Spartans coach Tom Izzo.
Izzo says Green is the consummate player. Like Johnson and Cleaves before him, Green leads by actions and words. The 6-foot-7 senior has the respect of his teammates because he's earned it. No cutting corners. A coach's dream.
After the Spartans won the title in 2000 with Cleaves, Izzo said his former boss Jud Heathcote, who coached Johnson at Michigan State, told him to savor it because a transcendent player comes along "once every 20 years."
"I kept saying if I gotta wait another 20 years, I might be dead," Izzo said. "But, thank God, at least I have a guy."
Green is more than a guy.
He's the unquestioned heart, soul and spirit of the Spartans. They are nothing without him.
Aside from his wondrous skills, Green has the other intangibles — unselfishness, dedication, passion, loyalty — that made Johnson and Cleaves great.
"Let's make sure we understand Magic is on his own separate level. He's way up there," Izzo said, raising his hand. "But Draymond can do a lot of different things. And he can help you win games in a lot of different ways. But where the thread is identical is winning is the most important thing.
"Care about their teammates. Care about the coaches. Care about the program. Care about the school."
Izzo said Green, who has been a captain since his sophomore season, is also his top recruiter.
"He goes and watches kids play that are juniors in high school," Izzo said. "That's the way he is. Same way Mateen is, the same way Earvin still is. I think that's why you have a special appreciation for guys like that."
Green carries himself with supreme confidence. He only seems uncomfortable when talking about himself or the inevitable comparisons to Johnson, whom he calls "a big brother" to all the Spartans.
Earlier this week, Green had a phone conversation with Johnson, who offered tips on "rallying the troops" and what it will take to get the Spartans to the top. Johnson gave him pointers on telling Michigan State's guards to control the game's tempo and watch turnovers, and remind the big men to hit the boards.
Johnson told Green that if the Spartans are going to make a deep run, they have to do it as one.
"That's what the family is all about," Green said. "Helping each other out."
The Billikens (26-7) are now blocking the Spartans' path.
One of the nation's best defensive teams, Saint Louis slowed Memphis to a crawl on Friday, frustrating the Tigers in a 61-54 win. Majerus, who is 11-1 in the NCAAs opening round, had his team play deliberately on offense and aggressively on defense.
For 40 minutes, the Billikens went man-to-man, taking the fight to the Tigers and declawing them.
"You know what kind of toothpaste they use because you're in so close," senior center Brian Conklin said. "It's a fun defense. We love playing defense like that."
Saint Louis is back in the tournament after a 12-year absence. Majerus has been preaching to his players not to adopt a happy-to-be-here attitude, and so far the Billikens have listened. They're one win from making the regional semifinals for the first time.Comment on this story
"Yesterday was an upset, supposedly," Conklin said. "Everyone said we weren't going to win that game. We've already done one, so why not a second one? We're going to muck up the game like we did yesterday and play dirty basketball."
If that's the case, Green said he and teammates will be ready.
"I don't think it will be that big of a challenge for us if they want to play dirty or come out and try to make it a physical game," he said. "That's how we play all summer. That's what we built our program around. So that will be fine with us."
No doubt, Magic would say the same thing.