Wojo: Valentine is heart of the Spartans

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Denzel Valentine can do just about anything on a basketball floor. He’s a shooter, a rebounder, a passer, a defender. He leads, he pleads, he prods, he pushes.

At the risk of committing another holiday pun gaffe, I’ll even suggest Valentine’s game is like a box of chocolates. You never know exactly what you’ll get, only that it’ll be different than the last one and probably better.

Michigan State’s senior guard is the best all-around player in college basketball, and should give Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield a battle for National Player of the Year. Valentine is the primary reason the Spartans are a Final Four pick, the primary reason they can mess around for a while and still blitz a good Indiana team, 88-69.

Valentine’s versatility is so smooth and subtle, it can get overlooked. He’s the most unique player Tom Izzo has ever had, which makes sense, because this might be the most distinctive team Izzo has had. All of Michigan State’s dynamics were on display Sunday, as it turned a 10-point deficit into a rout, led by the senior trio of Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes.

Valentine sweet, Spartans crush Hoosiers

Simply the best

It’s not unusual the Spartans are ripening into something special. It is unusual how they’re doing it. Valentine tallied 30 points, 13 assists and five rebounds against the Hoosiers, and lit the competitive spark when the defense was dragging early. He leads the Big Ten in scoring (19.5) and assists (7.1) and has two triple-doubles this season.

While many prematurely anointed Hield the Player of the Year, after previously, prematurely anointing LSU’s Ben Simmons, Valentine returned from a four-game absence due to a knee injury and blew up the debate. Hield averages 25.6 points and shoots 49.8 percent from 3-point range, and the Sooners have taken their turn at No. 1. But so have the Spartans, and they’re climbing back up the rankings, even if they won’t be able to reach the top of the Big Ten.

“I love Buddy Hield, and everything I hear about him, he seems like the most quality kid we have in college basketball,” Izzo said. “As far as being able to do everything, I don’t think Valentine gets credit for his defense. Everything we’ve asked that kid to get better at, he’s gotten better at. He became a better shooter, a little more disciplined with the ball, and he can guard people. If you can find a better all-around player, that guy deserves it.”

Valentine fills up a stat sheet while filling holes on the floor, and has done it without much of a breather. Tum Tum Nairn Jr. just returned after missing seven games because of a foot injury, and in his absence, Valentine was forced to do even more. In the past eight games, his averages are staggering — 22 points, eight rebounds, seven assists.

This is the best offensive team in Izzo’s 21 seasons, with the highest scoring average (79.8) and the most prolific 3-point shooting. So the guy directing it surely has a chance to be named the nation’s best, right?

“I don’t really think about it anymore because it’s out of our control, we lost five games,” Valentine said. “I may not get it, may get it, whatever. If he wins it, he’s well-deserving. I really don’t care about awards, honestly. It’s just another pressure to add to myself. I just play to win.”

Valentine humbly defers on the Hield conversation because that’s what he should do in a program all about team accomplishment. He also knows the Oklahoma senior guard well from playing against each other, and he said the two text often, and were even texting the night before this game.

It’s a debate for the masses, not for the players. Oklahoma is 20-4, about the same as Michigan State’s 21-5, so the three-game losing streak after Valentine’s return from injury shouldn’t eliminate him after all. And if Hield’s prolific shooting wins out, I’m sure it wouldn’t be nearly as disappointing as a derailed run to the Final Four.

Reserves come up big in MSU's victory

Team leader

This is the evolution of Valentine, who used to seem more excited about making the flashiest play than the best play. Now, he commands the court and isn’t shy about demanding more from teammates. Ask him which numbers in a packed box score he takes the most pride in, and he points to the assists-to-turnovers ratio — 13-1 against Indiana. Ask teammates where Valentine makes the biggest impact, and they don’t point to any number at all.

“It’s the way he leads the team,” said Costello, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds Sunday. “He used to get down pretty easy, and now he gets mad when he gets down. That was the only area where he struggled. He’s changed that and it’s changed our team.”

It’s the balance Izzo requires his players to appreciate — playing with poise and ferocity, while trying to seize the moments. Last Valentine’s Day, Valentine famously did just that, hitting a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to beat Ohio State 59-56.

Now he’s counting down the days, three home games left, before the postseason and the end of his college career. Those are the only numbers he cares about, the amount of victories it takes to return to the Final Four and win the national title.

“There’s nothing to be stressed out about, or get out of whack about, because we’ve been in positions like this all year and all my career,” Valentine said. “We’ve been in pretty much every type of game, been down 30, been up 30, made game-winning shots, missed game-winning shots. I’ve been in any game you can think about.”

When you’ve seen just about everything, you’re confident you can do just about anything. As far as Valentine is concerned, it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as it gets done.