East Lansing -- Denzel Valentine thought he knew what to expect, having grown up with the rivalry. His father, Carlton, played basketball for Michigan State in the mid-1980s, coached his son to a pair of state titles across town at Lansing Sexton and, as Valentine explained with a laugh late Tuesday night, "Yeah, my parents, they really don't like Michigan."
So, yeah, the Spartans' freshman guard figured he knew what this was all about, and he was busy trying to explain it to his roommate, Gary Harris, who was reared on Indiana basketball.
"I mean, he kinda knew what it was gonna be like," Valentine said of his teammate. "But he didn't really know. I was telling him, 'It's gonna be crazy.'"
But hours before Tuesday night's rivalry showdown in East Lansing, he finally got his first glimpse of just how crazy. Members of the Izzone student section started lining up in the cold at 9 a.m. — for a 9 p.m. tip-off — and when Valentine peeked out the window at the Breslin Center, the line stretched as far as he could see.
"And I was, like, 'Wow!'" Valentine said. "I just looked at Gary and said, 'We gotta win this, man.'"
That they won it so convincingly was the obvious headline Tuesday night. The game was a riot of a rout for the Spartans, with the final 23-point margin — the largest in the series in more than a decade — barely doing it justice. Tom Izzo called it "a perfect storm" and probably the best game Michigan State had played in three years, and nobody was arguing with him.
But that the Spartans won it with major contributions from their freshmen — Harris, Valentine and Matt Costello, affectionately dubbed "The Three Stooges" by Izzo last fall — was arguably the most important takeaway from Tuesday's thrashing.
While Michigan's highly touted freshmen wilted under the bright lights on the road — again — the Spartans' trio absolutely shined.
Harris led Michigan State with 17 points, including five 3-pointers, while helping Branden Dawson harass Tim Hardaway Jr. into a 1-for-11 shooting night. Valentine, seeing more action with Travis Trice (concussion) sidelined, provided a spark with seven points, nine rebounds and four assists. Costello finished with a career-high eight points and six rebounds, including a layup and dunk off the offensive glass in each half that sent the crowd into a tizzy and forced Michigan coach John Beilein to call a timeout.
Michigan freshmen falter
By contrast, of Michigan's three freshman starters, only Nik Stauskas looked the slightest bit comfortable. And even his 10-point night was overshadowed by his weak defensive effort on Harris. Meanwhile, Glenn Robinson III's February funk continued with another vanishing act — that's eight points combined in Michigan's last three losses. And Mitch McGary fumbled away his first start, finishing with as many turnovers (four) as points or rebounds in 26 minutes on the floor.
"We've got three pretty good freshmen, too," Izzo said. "Their freshmen deserve (credit) for what they've done, but our freshmen did a pretty good job themselves."
His freshmen weren't going to say much more than that, obviously. They know the drill by now. (And, yes, it certainly includes Izzo venting at Valentine on the sideline after an unforced turnover late in the second half with the game well in hand.) But there's little doubt they were feeling slighted by all the talk about Michigan's young guns the past few months.
"All the attention they get, hats off to them," Valentine said. "Their freshmen are pretty good, they play hard. But we can do some things, too."
And if they keep doing some of the things they did Tuesday, there's no telling how far this Michigan State team can go.
The more dependable Valentine becomes, the more comfortable Izzo feels with Keith Appling on the bench, either for a rest or if he's in foul trouble. The Spartans can't count on "crazy good minutes" from Costello every night — that was assistant coach Dane Fife's description, by the way — but every little bit will help.
Harris on fire
Harris, though, is the key. He has played hurt for much of this season: He's only 18, and at times he probably has felt as if he were 58. He suffered a shoulder injury in a win over Boise State in November, missed a couple games after that, and then reinjured the shoulder a month ago at Iowa. Then came the back spasms, which remain a concern. Tuesday night, Harris was cramping up again in the second half, but said afterward, "This is the best I've felt" since Thanksgiving.
It showed as he bombed the Wolverines early on. His third 3-pointer of the first half gave the Spartans a double-digit lead they'd never relinquish, and he'd finish with four rebounds, three assists and three steals, as well.
"I just really like where my shot is right now,'' said Harris, who is 19-of-35 from behind the arc his last five games. "I'm very comfortable with it, and when I'm open, I'm just letting it go.''
It's Harris' shooting — nearly 44 percent from 3-point range for the season — that truly makes Michigan State an inside-out matchup nightmare for teams, complementing the post presence of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, as well as Dawson.
But it's his maturity as a player that really gets his coaches excited.
"He's off-the-charts efficient," said Fife, who has worked overtime with Harris to sharpen the release on his jump shot. "He's going to play his game and he's going to be pretty consistent, at both ends. And that's the key, that's every coach's dream. You know what you're going to get every night from Gary Harris."
With freshmen, what you see isn't always what you get. And things are bound to get tougher for Michigan State's teenagers down the stretch, with a four-game stretch that begins next week at home against No. 1 Indiana and includes road dates in Columbus and Ann Arbor.
But, as Valentine says, "I think we're starting to see what we're made of now."
Adreian Payne, right, grins at freshman Gary Harris late in Michigan State's rout of Michigan on Tuesday night. / Dale G. Young/Detroit News
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