If there was one takeaway from the Champions Classic last night, it’s that Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine is ready for primetime. Ok, it sounds like a cliche, especially considering he’s already Top DOG on a perennial contender, led by the unrivaled Tom Izzo, and has been in the national spotlight for quite some time.
However, Valentine only started to see his role increase last season and even then, Sparty turned to senior Branden Dawson for leadership. Now, there’s no question who State turns to both when the going gets tough late in games and to initiate action on both sides.
Last night was the first of many “takeover” performances by Valentine, who notched a triple-double (29 points, 12 boards, 12 dimes) in a come-from-behind victory over Kansas (79-73). Before last night, not many people knew about Valentine’s court vision and ability to control possessions and get good shots.
Sometimes pigeonholed as a volume shooter and scorer, Valentine is actually one of the more well-rounded players in the nation:
As you see in the highlights, Bill Self’s defensive strategy was to focus the attention on #45, while forcing the others to make players. Not only did role players like Matt McQuaid (3-3 from deep in the second half, including a dagger three with 45 ticks on the clock) step up, Valentine’s improved passing ended up making the difference.
He looks much improved from a year ago in terms of converting runners off the dribble and finding open teammates after breaking down the defense.
His improvement has made State of lot more interesting as a potential Final Four team. With the way Valentine is controlling the pace, Coach Izzo and the Spartans will be in contention all season long.