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.

Gavitt Games schedule released, but not much to get excited about

NCAA Men's Final Four - National Championship - Villanova v North Carolina
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The schedule for the 2016 Gavitt Tipoff  Games were announced on Tuesday afternoon.

The Gavitt Games are an event that we be held annually featuring eight made-for-TV matchup between Big East programs and Big Ten programs. It’s similar to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, only it takes place during the first week of the regular season.

Last year’s Games were highlighted by a matchup between Maryland and Georgetown, a local rivalry that hadn’t been played in three decades. And while those two programs will face-off once again this season, the level of intrigue in this year’s event is not quite what it was last year.

The marquee matchup will probably be reigning champs Villanova, who should be a top five team in the preseason, playing at Purdue, who should once again be competitive in the Big Ten. And so long as Nigel Hayes returns to Wisconsin, the Badgers trip to Creighton should feature two NCAA tournament teams. There will be some hype given the rivalry between Maryland and Georgetown, but both of those teams are on a downward trend.

And beyond that?

Yuck. Rutgers vs. DePaul and St. John’s vs. Minnesota are … well, let’s just say you won’t be taking time out of your week to tune in.

Here’s the full schedule:

Monday, Nov. 14th:

Villanova at Purdue

Tuesday, Nov. 15th:

Maryland at Georgetown
Wisconsin at Creighton

Wednesday, Nov. 16th:

Northwestern at Butler

Thursday, Nov. 17th:

Seton Hall at Iowa
Providence at Ohio State
Rutgers at DePaul

Friday, Nov. 18th:

St. John’s at Minnesota

Looking Forward: Which programs are on the rise as we head into 2016-17?

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, file photo, Wisconsin's Vitto Brown, left, and Bronson Koening laugh during the final seconds of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won, 79-68. Though he moved on to the NBA long ago, March Madness is also Steph Curry's world now. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some programs on the rise heading into next season.

Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams’ second season in Blacksburg proved to be more successful than many expected, as the Hokies won ten ACC games (20 overall) and played in the Postseason NIT. What can they do for an encore? In all honesty the pieces needed for the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007 are in place, with six of their top seven scorers from a season ago due to return led by forward Zach LeDay and guard Seth Allen. Expecting the Hokies to contend for the ACC title may be a bit much, but it’s fair to expect them to work their way into the Top 25 and the NCAA tournament in 2016-17.

Creighton: The Bluejays, picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll, nearly played its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble thanks to a much-improved big man in Geoffrey Groselle, transfer Maurice Watson Jr. and Cole Huff, and guard Isaiah Zierden. Groselle’s gone, but given the combination of returnees and the addition of former Kansas State guard Marcus Foster the Bluejays could be in line for another leap forward. The key for Greg McDermott’s team will be the return of Watson, who’s going through the NBA Draft evaluation process.

Wisconsin: At one point last season the Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play, with it appearing highly unlikely that Greg Gard would have his interim tag removed. But Gard’s team turned things around, winning 22 games and reaching the Sweet 16. Provided Nigel Hayes, who’s currently going through the NBA Draft evaluation process, returns to school the Badgers will be on the short list of Big Ten title contenders. Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ lead four other starters who will be back, and Andy Van Vliet (who the NCAA sidelined for last season) will help in the front court as well.

USC: The Trojans’ progression was a year ahead of schedule, as after producing consecutive 12-win seasons they earned an NCAA tournament berth in Andy Enfield’s third season at the helm. USC does have some questions in the form of guard Julian Jacobs and forward Nikola Jovanovic both going through the NBA Draft process, but if both return the Trojans will be a contender in the Pac-12. Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are among the returnees for a team that could return five of its six double-digit scorers — Katin Reinhardt being the lone departure — from last season.

UCLA guard Bryce Alford, center, attempts to move the ball past Kentucky guard Charles Matthews, right, as Jamal Murray, left, helps defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
UCLA guard Bryce Alford (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

UCLA: Staying in Los Angeles, this is a big year coming up for Steve Alford. The Bruins were a major disappointment last season, but the combination of some key returnees and a recruiting class led by Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf should propel UCLA back into the Pac-12 and national conversations. Ball should be handed the keys to the show from the start given his abilities at the point, which should result in plentiful scoring opportunities for the likes of Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh. How good this team can be will depend on two things: how well the pieces mesh, and an improved commitment on the defensive end.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 last season, but the way in which they got there wasn’t what we’ve grown accustomed to with regards to Mark Few’s program as they needed the WCC automatic bid to ensure a spot in the field. Even with the departures of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga has the tools needed to be better in 2016-17, as a backcourt that made strides as the season progressed will be a year older with Josh Perkins and Silas Melson leading the way. Also, Przemek Karnowski will be back on the court after missing last season with a back injury.

Florida State: Leonard Hamilton received some good news, as both Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes decided to return after briefly flirting with the NBA Draft. They’ll be asked to lead the way for a team that adds a solid recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American Jonathan Isaac, and putting points on the board won’t be much of an issue. If they can get back to defending at the level we’ve come to expect from Hamilton-coached teams, Florida State can make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012.

Rhode Island: Dan Hurley’s Rams began the 2015-16 season viewed as a team that could contend in the Atlantic 10. Then the injury bug hit, with E.C. Matthews being lost to a torn ACL and multiple key contributors (including Hassan Martin) missing time throughout the course of the year. URI’s healthy again, and with Four McGlynn being the lone major contributor out of eligibility 2016-17 should see the Rams rebound and make a run at the Atlantic 10 title.

Michigan’s Spike Albrecht to finish his career at rival Big Ten program

Michigan guard Spike Albrecht (2) makes a layup between Northern Michigan forward Brett Branstrom, top left, and center Vejas Grazulis (52) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Michigan won 70-44. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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Spike Albrecht’s career isn’t over, as the former Michigan point guard and graduate transfer has committed to play his final season for Big Ten rival Purdue.

“I’ll be playing my 5th year for Purdue University,” Albrecht tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Boiler Up.”

Albrecht’s career has been fascinating to follow. A very lightly recruited high schooler, Albrecht picked Michigan over Appalachian State, playing very limited minutes behind National Player of the Year Trey Burke before popping off for 17 points in the first half of the national title game that season (and launching the greatest heat check in the history of heat checks). He would play a bigger role as a sophomore before averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 assists in 32 minutes as a junior in 2014-15.

But as a senior, Albrecht cut his season short after just a couple of games due to a degenerative issue in his hips. He had surgery on both hips prior to last season and initially announced that his career was over. That changed, but Michigan’s scholarship situation didn’t: They had already recruited someone to take his scholarship after his graduation, so Albrecht was forced to transfer.

Purdue is a good fit for him. He’ll provide veteran leadership on a team with just one other senior on the roster — redshirt junior Basil Smotherman — and he’ll help anchor the point guard spot currently held by junior P.J. Thompson.

Villanova’s Jenkins to return for senior season

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) reacts to play against North Carolina during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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After briefly taking part in the NBA Draft evaluation process, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins announced Monday night that he’s decided to withdraw and return to school for his senior year. Jenkins, whose three-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats the win over North Carolina in the national title game, announced the news via Twitter.

2015-16 was a breakout season for Jenkins, who moved into the starting lineup and averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The 6-foot-6 forward shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and with starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating he’ll have even more opportunities to produce next season.

Jenkins’ decision to return leaves wing Josh Hart as the lone Wildcats going through the early entry process at this time. Hart was a first team All-Big East selection as a junior, and his return would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that many expect to be a national title contender in 2016-17.

Jenkins and Hart wouldn’t be the only returnees who had a part in the national title run, with guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, wing Mikal Bridges and forward Darryl Reynolds back as well. To that group Villanova adds Fordham transfer Eric Paschall and a recruiting class anchored by Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter with Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney available after being hampered by injuries last season.

Delaney missed all of last year after undergoing surgical procedures on his hips, and DiVincenzo played a total of 74 minutes over the first nine games before having to sit due to a broken foot.