East Lansing — When Denzel Valentine was growing up in Lansing, he spent countless hours playing basketball outside at his house.
He had dreams, like every young kid with a basketball in his hands does. But for him, there was always one constant. No matter what game he imagined himself playing in or how many points he was scoring, Valentine was always wearing a Michigan State uniform.
Entering his senior season, the Spartans’ star is keenly aware of the place he could have by sometime in early spring.
“When I was younger, all I dreamed about was building a legacy at Michigan State and being one of the greats, playing in front of the Izzone, all of that,” Valentine said. “I worked hard and have great people around me, so I might as well just leave a legacy because that’s one of my goals. To leave a legacy would be huge for me.”
Trying to create that legacy is different for Valentine than any of his teammates. After all, he’s been around this program his entire life.
His father, Carlton, played in the late 1980s under Jud Heathcote and then went on to coach at Lansing Sexton. As Denzel grew up, he saw the growth of coach Tom Izzo’s program up close. And after he helped his father to two straight state championships at Sexton, it was on to Michigan State for Valentine.
Now, on the verge of his final season as a Spartan, Valentine has the chance to finish among the program’s greats. He’s already scored 1,000 points and with another solid season he’ll almost certainly be in the top 10 in program history in rebounds and assists.
But none of that compares to winning games. And for Valentine, that means hanging the ultimate banner — one for a national championship. He came close last season, helping Michigan State to its seventh Final Four under Izzo and first since 2010.
However, as his coach is tired of just getting there, Valentine wants the ultimate prize before he leaves.
“There’s seven of those up there,” Valentine said, glancing up to the 2015 Final Four banner that was raised at Midnight Madness last week. “It was cool when it was raised the other night, but dang, it’s just adding. I want one of those green ones — be different.”
The Final Four banners are white at the Breslin Center. The national title banners – from 1979 and 2000 – are green. That’s the one Valentine wants.
And Izzo, who has had his share of dynamic leaders over the last 20-plus seasons, thinks Valentine is the perfect guy to lead this team.
“Denzel is definitely a vocal leader and has definitely played in a lot of big games,” Izzo said. “I couldn’t think of a better guy to have running us than him.”
Valentine was pretty good last season for the Spartans, averaging 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. But he’s been focused on getting even better.
He spent a big part of the off-season playing with Team USA in the Pan Am Games, earning a gold medal. By August, he and the Spartans were off to Italy for a four-game trip and Valentine was once again the star.
In between, he’s spent countless hours getting better, all in an effort to make his senior season his best.
“The star of our stars is Valentine,” Izzo said. “I don’t think there’s any question Denzel has to step up. He’s become a better shooter over the summer and played pretty well in his Team USA appearance. He’s a guard that is multidimensional. He can rebound, he can pass.”
And he can show the way for the rest of his team. Valentine received every vote when the team decided on captains, something that doesn’t happen often.
Whether it’s rooming with freshman Deyonta Davis in Italy or constantly pushing sophomore Tum Tum Nairn to be the spark for this team, Valentine is pushing and prodding, trying to get everything he can out of this Michigan State team.
“Denzel is a special kid,” Nairn said. “I really feel like he comes out every single practice wanting to win the national championship and wanting to do it for his family and just for Michigan State basketball history.
“At least four or five times a week we sit down by ourselves and talk about winning the national championship and what we have to do to bring guys along with us and drive guys and push guys.”
Getting this team to that ultimate goal consumes Valentine. He remembers the embrace he had with his father and brother after Michigan State beat Louisville last spring to reach the Final Four. Now he wants that same feeling, just two games later.
“I wouldn’t change that for the world,” Valentine said. “To get back there is probably the most important thing in my life right now, and to get further.”
That would certainly cement his legacy at Michigan State.
“Denzel is on a mission,” Izzo said. “He thinks owes that to Magic and Mateen and Draymond.”
And it would at least add some green to the rafters at the Breslin Center.
“I want five years and 10 years from now to look back and come here and see the banners me and my teammates won,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Michigan State basketball
Preseason ranking: No. 13 in coaches’ poll
2014-15 record: 27-12 overall, 12-6 Big Ten (T-3rd)
Postseason: Reached Big Ten tournament championship game; reached Final Four for first time since 2010.
Key returnees: G Denzel Valentine (Sr.), G Bryn Forbes (Sr.), C Matt Costello (Sr.), G Tum Tum Nairn, (Soph.), C Gavin Schilling (Jr.).
Key newcomers: G Eron Harris (Jr.), F Deyonta Davis (Fr.), G Matt McQuaid (Fr.), G Kyle Ahrens (Fr.)
Key nonconference games: Nov. 17 vs. Kansas (Champions Classic, Chicago); Dec. 2 vs. Louisville (Big Ten/ACC Challenge); Dec. 12 vs. Florida