Senior said he wouldn't change how he and his team prepared before loss to Middle Tennessee in NCAA Tournament.
East Lansing — As Michigan State was in the midst of what likely will go down as its most devastating loss in program history, Denzel Valentine was fighting.
He was fighting to be the player he had been all season, the player who was the best in the Big Ten, and among the best in the nation. Time after time, when Michigan State needed someone to rise to the occasion, it was Valentine.
But in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against No. 15 Middle Tennessee, Valentine struggled to find himself.
“It was an out of character game for us,” Valentine said Tuesday. “That was the weirdest game I’ve ever had in my career. No matter what level — middle school, elementary — it was the weirdest game I’ve ever played in. It felt like it wasn’t right.”
It never got right. Not for the Spartans. Not for Valentine.
The senior turned the ball over six times, something he had never done in an NCAA Tournament game, and when the open shots were there to be made in the second half, they didn’t fall.
The Spartans lost, becoming the eighth No. 2 seed in the history of the Tournament to lose to a No. 15 seed.
“I never thought I would lose in the first round or get upset,” Valentine said. “In our three years before that I would watch teams and be like, ‘Teams are getting upset and I hope that never happens to me.’ You’re thinking it never is gonna happen to you but it shows you that anything can happen to you at any moment.”
As he reflected, Valentine sat in an empty Breslin Center days before North Carolina, Syracuse, Oklahoma and Villanova were set to play in the Final Four.
It was eerie. Instead of seeing a flurry of activity, the court at Breslin Center sat empty, the lights dim and not a soul to be found or a basketball to be bounced. Sitting in the stands was Valentine, roughly a week-and-a-half since the crushing loss.
Instead of contemplating the end of his career, this was supposed to be the week he celebrated the culmination of a remarkable four-year career, one that seemed destined to end with a national championship.
It’s what consumed Valentine for the better part of the last year — getting back to the Final Four and winning the title.
He talked about it. Matt Costello talked about it. Bryn Forbes talked about it. The seniors thought of nothing else.
Valentine said he and his teammates were in shock walking off the court that day in St. Louis. After the game, coach Tom Izzo did everything he could to fight back the tears.
This was the team that was going to deliver Izzo his second national title.
He believed it. His players believed it. They believed it so much the thought of falling short never entered their minds. It even had Valentine guaranteeing it after the final home game of the regular season.
But, as Valentine pointed out, the pressure created is just par for the course at Michigan State and he would never change that.
“We’ve got so many Final Fours and great players that have played here,” Valentine said, pointing to banners that hang in the Breslin rafters. “This is a top-five program so there’s gonna be pressure when you play here and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it. So we put that pressure on ourselves and we wanted that.
“Did we respond the way we wanted to? I don’t think we responded the best in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe we put too much on it, maybe we talked about it too much.”
Valentine wishes he could have taken the Middle Tennessee game over, much the way he did so many times during the season. He says that will stick with him. When he “sees that movie playing in my head again,” he’ll know how to respond.
He just wishes it wouldn’t have happened that day.
The support has been widespread since the loss, Valentine said. The community has been overwhelming and he’s heard from just about every former Spartan he could think of except for Magic Johnson.
“I think Magic’s mad at me,” Valentine said laughing.
He and his seniors Costello and Forbes don’t talk about the game much.
“That would be a two-hour conversation,” Valentine said. “But we can’t just wipe it off like it didn’t happen.”
Instead, they’re trying to move forward. Valentine and Forbes will take part in the 3-point contest Thursday while Costello will play in the College All-Star Game on Friday. All the events are in Houston, but Valentine isn’t sure if he’ll watch the Final Four.
“Draymond (Green) said he only went for like five minutes his senior year,” Valentine said. “It will definitely be tough.”
After the 3-point contest, there’s all the awards Valentine could win — Associated Press player of the year, Oscar Robertson Trophy, Wooden and Naismith Awards.
None, however, will soften the blow of not playing.
“I’ve always been a winner so I don’t look at numbers and player of the year,” Valentine said. “I look at who won the championship and who is the best player on the championship team. That’s how I envisioned myself. … I remember winning the state championship (at Lansing Sexton) and there was nothing like it. It’s a way better feeling than the player of the year.”
Numbers aren’t enough
Whether it changes his legacy remains to be seen. Valentine still accomplished much in his four seasons.
■He finished with 1,645 points, 856 rebounds and 639 assists, becoming the first player in Big Ten history with 1,300 points, 700 rebounds and 500 assists.
■He ranks third in Michigan State history in career assists (639), third in career games played (144), fourth in career 3-pointers made (265) and attempted (650), ninth in career rebounds (856), tied for ninth in career games started (117) and 11th in career scoring (1,645).
■He is the only player in Michigan State history to rank in the career top 10 in assists and rebounds.
But there is one thing missing.
“I love the guy to death and I hope he can win a (second) national championship,” Valentine said of Izzo. “That is one reason I wanted to win a national championship, too. He’s had so many great teams and is such a great man and I wanted us to win a national championship and celebrate that moment.
“It wasn’t meant to be.”