Matthew Cleveland rising to the occasion for FSU as double-double machine

When Cam’Ron Fletcher joined the growing list of injured Florida State basketball players late in the Seminoles’ loss at Virginia on Dec. 3, Matthew Cleveland knew he needed to step up.

The Seminoles were 1-9 and desperately in need of a rebounding presence with Fletcher sidelined for the season with a knee injury and first-year Brown transfer Jaylan Gainey, the reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, missing the entire season with an injury suffered in the preseason.

Fletcher was averaging 7.5 rebounds per game this season before his injury while Gainey averaged 6.9 rebounds per game last season at Brown. Suffice it to say, that’s a major absence the Seminoles were going to feel.

Cleveland, the reigning ACC Sixth Man of the Year, is big for a guard at 6-foot-7. But he has not been an especially prolific rebounder throughout his FSU career. He averaged 4.6 rebounds per game as a true freshman and was averaging 5.1 rebounds per game through the Virginia game.

He’s had at least eight rebounds in each of the five games since and has had 10 or more in the last four games. After he had just three career double-doubles in his first 40 games at FSU, Cleveland has put up double-doubles in each of the Seminoles’ last four games. That’s the longest such streak by an FSU player since Douglas Edwards during the 1992-93 season.

Cleveland will go for his fifth straight double-double and FSU (4-11, 2-2 in ACC) will look to get back above .500 in conference play when the Seminoles host Georgia Tech (8-6, 1-3) Saturday at 1 pm on Regional Sports Networks (affiliate list) at the Tucker Civic Center.

“Definitely when Cam Fletcher got injured,” Cleveland told the Osceola when asked about when he realized he needed to step up his rebounding. “He was our leading rebounder so I knew if we were going to have any rebounds that I was going to have to step up. He would grab every rebound so I knew someone else had to step up and do it. That’s when it really flipped a switch for me…I just took it on myself.”

Rebounding has been far from Cleveland’s only area of ​​improvement in his second season with the Seminoles. He’s averaging 14 points per game, up from 10.5 as a true freshman, and averaging a potent 19 points per game over the last four games.

Part of Cleveland’s decision to return stemmed from a desire to boost his NBA stock by improving as a shooter. He’s already hit more three-pointers this season than he did last year (8, up from 6) and is shooting 42.1% from three after he was a 17.6% three-point shooter as a freshman.

He’s also developed more of a mid-range game and is making 75.8% of his free throws – including 10 of 10 last weekend at Duke – after he was an underwhelming 55.5% free-throw shooter as a freshman.

“Obviously, he’s improved his perimeter game a lot. He sure has worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen on improving in all areas,” FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton said of Cleveland. “I think when we lost Cam Fletcher, it kind of triggered something in his mind of, ‘Look, I’ve got to step it up in all areas.’ He’s been leading by example. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. When you see a guy be on one side of the lane and rebound on the other side of the lane, that means he’s locked in. Hopefully, that’s inspiring some of the other guys to play at the same pace. I really like where he is now.”

Cleveland admits there have been moments of dwelling on poor injury luck for the second straight FSU season. A rash of injuries derailed a promising season for the Seminoles last year and another run of injuries seems to have sent this season careening off the tracks before it even began, at least in terms of the postseason aspirations FSU has had over the last few years.

Through that, though, FSU has stayed the course. Led by Cleveland’s on-court heroics, the Seminoles have kept fighting, winning three of their last five games after the 1-9 start. FSU already has as many ACC wins as it did non-conference wins and can surpass that total Saturday against the Yellow Jackets.

“It was really hard just trying to pinpoint what the issue was. We all talked as a team. Day-in and day-out, it was really hard, especially after a few losses and playing harder, playing more as a team and the wins still not coming,” Cleveland said. “It was just confusion that we had, but we knew that if we kept putting in the work and playing together that it would come.”

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