St. Louis — Denzel Valentine can do just about anything at any moment. A super-clutch double-clutch jumper to seal the Big Ten tournament title? Sure. A flip pass from the prone position for an alley-oop dunk? Sure.
That’s the championship appeal of this Michigan State team, that Valentine can do it all. And this is the key for the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament: Valentine can’t be required to do it all.
Michigan State opens today against Middle Tennessee, and the Spartans aren’t expected to be overly taxed. But Valentine is taxed pretty much every game, as the guy who handles, passes, shoots and rebounds the ball. He either has made or assisted on more than 50 percent of the Spartans baskets this season.
Tom Izzo frets about the wear on his star, and when he does, he usually begins the next sentence with some variation of, “I think Tum is getting better …” That’s backup point guard Lourawls Nairn Jr., who missed seven games with a foot injury (plantar fasciitis) and is gradually revving back up. His absence turned Valentine into the point guard and added to his duties, and now the Spartans could use some Tums-like relief from Nairn.
“If my minutes go up, I wouldn’t mind that at all,” Nairn said. “If I can give guys a break, I’ll do whatever I can to help the team. I’m 21 years old, I’m not gonna be doing this forever. These are the years you’ll never get back, so I don’t think about being tired or hurt.”
Before the foot injury forced him to sit, Nairn averaged about 25 minutes and led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. Since returning Feb. 14, he has averaged nine minutes, scored a total of six points and labored to regain his pace.
Nairn will be needed
So how can he be a factor? Because at some point, an opposing defense will be especially tenacious hounding Valentine, maybe even get him in foul trouble. In the high-pressure Tournament, the focus can shift to a different player at any time. For instance, Bryn Forbes was on a 3-point shooting tear much of the season but is 5-for-23 the past four games. It’s probably just a blip, but if it isn’t, the Spartans will have to win in other ways, like with their withering defense. Nairn is their best on-the-ball defender and their quickest guard in transition.
Michigan State gutted out victories over Maryland and Purdue last weekend but the turnovers were up, and “sloppiness” became Izzo’s lament. Valentine played 31, 37 and 35 minutes on consecutive days, and while Izzo smartly emptied his bench, using 12 guys, Nairn is one who can provide leadership and steadiness, with the ball and with his voice.
“Tum has done a great job, he comes in with great energy and passion and leads the team,” Valentine said. “I feel like he’s gonna have a couple great games in the NCAA Tournament.”
In practice at Breslin Center this week, Nairn ran the show at times, clapping and exhorting his teammates. Valentine and Matt Costello watched most of the workout in Izzo’s latest attempt to keep them as fresh as possible.
Valentine appreciated the break, although 30 minutes after practice, he was the last guy on the floor shooting.
“I’ll be ready to go,” he said. “I just gotta sleep right, get my treatment. But it’s hard to just say, go ahead and sleep after you play 30-something minutes.”
In a better state
There’s a boon and a curse to being such a complete player. Valentine can find teammates anywhere on the court, while defenses follow him everywhere on the court. That’s why it took a few remarkable, circus-like plays by Valentine to hold off Purdue in the title game.
It’s good he made the shots. Was it good he had to take the shots?
“I look at it like this — you can’t script a basketball game, so you’re gonna have to improvise,” Valentine said. “You can say we’re gonna run this and it’s gonna work, but you don’t know how the other team is gonna guard it. Late-game situations, that’s pretty much when it’s the best time to improvise. Coming off screens, making decisions when the pressure is on, I like that.”
The Spartans are far from a one-man team, and when it comes to vocal leadership, it’s pretty much Valentine, Costello and Nairn, when he’s feeling good. The pain in his right foot is still there, but Nairn said when he realized he couldn’t hurt it any worse, he ditched the walking boot and grit his way through it.
For an energetic, charismatic guy, the ache of sitting was almost too much to bear. The smile was gone, the limp was noticeable. It’s still noticeable occasionally, but the energy is returning.
“I can physically play through a lot of pain, I have my whole life,” Nairn said. “It just got to a point where it was wearing me down mentally. The doctors were doing everything they could, and I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t going away. Now, even though it’s not going away, I’m in a better state mentally because I know I can’t do anything about it right now.”
All he can do is be there when the Spartans need him, and they will, especially if turnovers remain an issue. That’s what pains Nairn, because he knows he can direct a team during the sweatiest moments. As a freshman last year, he started in the Final Four, so he’s familiar with the heat and is anxious to help. This is Valentine’s team but he can’t do it all, even when it seems he can.