Spartans star Valentine says return ‘getting close’

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The focus around the Michigan State basketball team the last couple of weeks has been on the health of Denzel Valentine.

And it’s easy to see why.

Before injuring his left knee Dec. 20, the senior guard was among the favorites for national player of the year, recording two triple-doubles and averaging 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists.

He nearly played in Thursday’s victory over Illinois, but coach Tom Izzo decided during shoot-around he wasn’t going to push it, even though Valentine has been medically cleared.

“I’ve got to get him cleared mentally, make sure he’s in the proper state,” said Izzo, whose team plays at Penn State on Sunday.

“Then I’ve got to have enough guts to play him because I’m not going to worry about one or two games when no championships are won in January. We’re going to make sure for him and for us that he’s healthy and I think that’s going to be hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Valentine is on the same page as Izzo. After Wednesday night’s practice, he thought he would play against Illinois. But before the game, he knew Izzo was right to keep him on the bench.

“I don’t want to get out there until I’m completely 100 percent,” Valentine said. “I’m about 90, 95 percent, but it’s getting there. I may play Sunday, I may play next week, but it’s getting close.”

Whether it’s Sunday or Thursday at home against Iowa, the only team to beat Michigan State, the task is clear: Make sure Valentine’s transition back into the rotation goes smoothly.

“The only problem is you want him to come back sooner rather than later from the fact of having a seamless re-entry,” Izzo said. “The longer you’re away, it breaks. We’re getting into that area now where the next couple of games, if he can’t come back by then, then the seams will start to show.”

MSU-Maryland tips off at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 23

The silver lining to Valentine’s absence has been the continued emergence of several other players.

Guard Bryn Forbes has become the go-to scorer in most cases — he had a career-high 32 points against Oakland — while center Matt Costello had two double-doubles in three games.

Junior guard Eron Harris also has seen an increased role, scoring 27 against Oakland and 21 at Iowa. After scoring 10 against Minnesota, he finished with 13 points against Illinois.

“Those guys have kind of raised their game up a little bit,” Izzo said. “We’ve got to get (Harris) more scoring, if you ask me.

“Thirteen (points) was good; he got nine shots tonight but the only disappointing thing is keeping (the ball) under control. Four turnovers is illegal for a two-guard but the way he checked, especially in the first half, he might have guarded as well as he’s guarded.”

Harris has seen his playing time jump, but more importantly, he’s become more of a primary option for the Spartans in Valentine’s absence. He’s scored in double figures four straight games after reaching double figures four times the previous 12 games.

“It’s giving me time to get comfortable on the court,” Harris said. “I’m a scorer, but we’ve got a lot of guys on the team that can score, so when it’s my time I have to take advantage of that opportunity.

“When Denzel comes back he’s going to contribute what he always contributes. I’m going to continue to contribute what I can and Bryn is going to continue to contribute what he can. It’s only gonna make us stronger when (Valentine) comes back.”

However Michigan State’s inflated rotation works out, the consensus is clear — they all want Valentine back as soon as possible.

It’s something Izzo doesn’t want to ease into. When Valentine comes back, he’ll be back.

“He’s going to have a little soreness in it,” Izzo said. “He’s going to have to learn how to deal with that. It’s a matter of how he practices and the extra conditioning he gets in. So when he goes it’s not gonna be five minutes, then 10 minutes. When he’s ready to go, we’re bringing him in to go.”