Denzel Valentine

Denzel Valentine is the piece that brings Michigan State together

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — All of No. 1 Michigan State’s stars were on display this weekend in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center this weekend.

In an 87-76 win over Oklahoma on Saturday night, Keith Appling did his best Shabazz Napier impression, going for 27 points on 10-14 shooting while hitting every big shot down the stretch for the Spartans. If Appling was the closer, Gary Harris was the starter, scoring 14 of his 21 points in the first half to help Michigan State build a lead that grew to 18 points early in the second half. Branden Dawson had his best game of the season, finishing with 18 points and 10 boards, and while Adreian Payne struggled Saturday, he was coming off of a truly dominant performance on Friday night.

Those guys are Tom Izzo’s horses. They are the stars that are going to carry the Spartans through Big Ten play and into the postseason.

But the key to this Michigan State team? The piece that brings it all together? Sophomore Denzel Valentine.

(MORE: Tom Izzo is NOT happy about the new officiating rules)

“He makes things happen,” assistant coach Dane Fife said after the game. “He stirs the pot, he’s a tremendous talent, he guarded 1-through-4 tonight for us. He’s so versatile.”

Valentine is truly one of those guys without a position. He stands about 6-foot-5, with the ability to handle the ball and range out to the three-point line. But he’s also got long arms and huge hands, which, when combined with his lower-body strength, allow him to defend power forwards and rebound with anyone in the country.

Does that remind you of someone? Draymond Green maybe? That’s the role he fills on this team. Green was an all-american, however, and Valentine is more of a glue guy, but his importance to the team should not be underrated.

Perhaps Valentine’s most valuable trait is his ability to distribute the basketball. He finished with five assists, to go along with seven points and six boards on Saturday, and he’s now got 18 assists in five games this season. What that does is take some of the pressure off of Keith Appling, who has never been a pure point guard. It allows him to worry less about creating for his teammates and focus a bit more on what he does best: scoring.

“I think it takes the heat off Keith,” Fife said of Valentine’s passing ability. “It prevents the defense from totally focusing from a guard perspective on Keith. [Denzel’s] one of the best at getting guys easy shots.”

“I just try to come in and do all the little things,” Valentine said. “Get rebounds, score when the opportunity is needed, pass the ball, distribute to teammates. That’s what I can do.”

If there is a concern, it’s that Valentine can get a bit wild offensively. He has a tendency to force some passes and get a little loose with where he’s throwing the ball, but according to Fife, that’s not something the coaching staff wants to take away. A turnover is tolerable when it means that he’ll stay aggressive.

On Saturday, he was plenty aggressive. In fact, he was the guy that changed the course of the game. Oklahoma jumped all over the Spartans to start the game. Midway through the first half, the Sooners had taken a 22-11 lead, as it took the Spartans a few minutes to wake up on a chilly Brooklyn night.

“They came out and just punched us. It was great. I loved it,” Izzo said. “You gotta give us some credit for responding, but we’re a little too much pretty boy right now. That’s the one thing, you start winning shooting a bunch of threes and you start scoring in the 90s, you forget that you’re going to win championships by getting your nose bloodied.”

Valentine, and backup point guard Travis Trice, were the guys that started bloodying noses when they entered the game, sparking a 34-9 run to close the half. Michigan State pushed that lead to 18 points early in the second half, and while Oklahoma made their run in the second half, throwing a press at Michigan State that got the lead down to four at one point, the Spartans were too much.

Valentine won’t get the credit, Appling will.

But the role he played, the one he will play all season long, was just as important.

He’s not perfect, however.

“He’s the worst dancer I’ve ever seen,” Fife said.

Five-star 2017 forward Porter Jr. releases top five schools

Father Tolton Catholic's Michael Porter, Jr. (1) celebrates after sinking a basket and drawing a foul during the first half of the Missouri Class 3 boys high school championship basketball game against the Barstow Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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As one of the top players in the Class of 2017, 6-foot-8 small forward Michael Porter Jr. has been on the receiving end of attention from many high-major programs. Monday night Porter, a native of Columbia, Missouri who’s ranked second in the class by Rivals.com, revealed his top five schools at this point in time.

The five schools that made the cut (in alphabetical order): Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia and Washington.

"Top 5 Top 5 Top 5" 🙏🏽 #Blessed

A photo posted by Michael Porter Jr. (@m1chael_porter) on

Of the five schools on Porter’s list Missouri and Washington may be the most interesting given the family connections. Not only is Missouri the hometown school, but Porter’s older sisters Bri and Cierra are members of the women’s basketball team.

And one of the assistants on that coaching staff was Porter’s father, who earlier this spring joined Lorenzo Romar’s staff at Washington. The elder Porter isn’t the only Washington connection either, with Michael’s younger brother Jontay being a commit in the Class of 2018.

Texas A&M lands Spanish forward Eric Vila

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With the loss of all-conference forward Jalen Jones, Texas A&M was in a position where they could afford to add another front court body alongside the likes of Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos. Thursday afternoon head coach Billy Kennedy and his staff managed to do just that, as 6-foot-9 forward Eric Martinez Vila made his pledge to the SEC program.

News of Vila’s commitment was first reported by TexAgs.com, and the FC Barcelona Lassa (that’s the club’s basketball program) product took visits to Texas A&M, Missouri and Wake Forest earlier this spring. Vila’s viewed as more of a combo forward, with the ability to step away from the basket and hit perimeter shots, giving the Aggies some added versatility in the front court.

Vila has plenty of experience playing for both FC Barcelona’s B team (however he did appear with the A-team during the 2014-15 season), and he represented Spain in the 2014 FIBA U16 EuroBasket and 2015 FIBA U18 EuroBasket events. Vila is the fifth member of Texas A&M’s 2016 class, joining guards J.J. Caldwell and J.C. Hampton, wing DeShawn Corprew and forward Robert Williams.

Nevada forward Cameron Oliver to return for sophomore season

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11: Angelo Chol #3 of the San Diego State Aztecs drives to the hoop against Cameron Oliver #0 of the Nevada Wolf Pack during a semifinal game of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center on March 11, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)
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With the deadline for early entrants to withdraw from the NBA Draft set for Wednesday, some college basketball teams will receive important news as it pertains to the 2016-17 campaign. One of those teams was Nevada, which surprised many last season by winning 24 games in Eric Musselman’s first season at the helm. And with one of the key contributors from that team deciding to withdraw from the NBA Draft, the Wolf Pack will be well positioned to be even better in 2016-17.

Forward Cameron Oliver, who was one of the Mountain West’s best freshmen this past season, will return to Reno for his sophomore season with Musselman making the news official Monday afternoon.

The 6-foot-8 Oliver averaged 13.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game for Nevada, shooting 50.8 percent from the field in his debut season. Oliver was named third team All-Mountain West while also earning conference All-Defensive team honors.

Oliver and wing D.J. Fenner (13.7 ppg) are the team’s top two returning scorers, with guard Marqueze Coleman (15.1 ppg) out of eligibility, and they’ll lead the way for a team that can contend in the Mountain West next season.

In addition to Oliver and Fenner, Nevada adds two talented transfers in Leland King and Marcus Marshall, with the latter averaging 19.5 points per game at Missouri State in 2014-15.

Georgia’s Juwan Parker granted medical redshirt

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: Juwan Parker #3 of the Georgia Bulldogs shoots under Joey King #24 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the first half at Madison Square Garden on November 28, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
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ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Georgia guard Juwan Parker has been awarded a medical redshirt, leaving him with two years of eligibility, after missing the 2015-16 season with a partially torn Achilles tendon.

Parker, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, played in Georgia’s exhibition game against Armstrong State but missed the regular season. He originally suffered the injury in the 2014-15 season, when he averaged 4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds while starting 14 games.

Parker will be a junior in the 2016-17 season.

Georgia also announced that forward Osahen Iduwe will transfer after averaging 0.5 points in 18 games.

Iduwe, from Nigeria, attended Central Park Christian School in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2012-13 and St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, in 2013-14.

Xavier star to return to school for junior year

Xavier's Trevon Bluiett celebrates after scoring in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Butler, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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Xavier forward Trevon Bluiett will return to school for his junior season.

Bluiett did not receive an invitation to the NBA Draft combine, but he did get a few workouts with NBA teams after declaring for the draft in March. He did not sign with an agent, meaning he can withdraw his name from consideration without losing any eligibility.

This is big for the Musketeers. Bluiett, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward that gives Xavier some lineup versatility, averaged 15.1 points and 6.1 boards while shooting 39.8 percent from three last season. With Bluiett back in the fold, the Musketeers return their top four perimeter scorers and may have the best 1-2 punch in the league with Bluiett and point guard Edmond Sumner.