Denzel Valentine

Denzel Valentine is the piece that brings Michigan State together



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.

VIDEO: Kris Dunn wills Providence to win over No. 11 Arizona

Kris Dunn, Elliott Pitts
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
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Kris Dunn spent the first 35 minutes of Friday night’s game against No. 11 Arizona in foul trouble, splitting his time between sitting on the bench and trying to avoid finding himself, again, on the wrong side the whistle.

With 11 minutes left in the game, and with Dunn yet to find a rhythm, the all-american point guard was whistled for his fourth foul as he battled for a rebound with Arizona’s Mark Tollefsen. Head coach Ed Cooley say his superstar beside his for six game minutes, time enough for Arizona to turn a 49-47 deficit into a 58-54 lead.

There were just over five minutes left when Dunn reentered the second semifinal of the Wooden Legacy, and he proceeded to show everyone in the country why he was named the Preseason Player of the Year. Providence had nine possessions after he reentered the game. Dunn scored 11 points and had a pair of assists on those eight possessions, and if Ben Bentil had stuck a wide-open three — that was setup by Dunn — the Friars would have scored on all nine.

In total, Dunn was responsible for all 15 Friar points in a game-changing, 15-7 run in the final 4:30. It was capped off by this Kobe-in-his-prime-esque game-winner:

The win for Providence is huge for a couple of reasons:

  • Dunn showed a killer instinct against a marquee opponent, something that we didn’t necessarily see out of him a season ago. He wasn’t going to let his team lose, and given that Providence doesn’t have anyone else that can consistently create good shots, they are going to need that from him a lot this year.
  • It makes a statement for the Friars. Arizona is overrated at No. 11 in the country, yes, but going out on national television against an elite program and getting this kind of performance from Dunn is a confidence-booster and a tone-setter. Providence hasn’t been accustomed to winning in recent years. This is a way to set a trend.
  • Ben Bentil continues to play like a star. Dunn had 19 points and eight assists on Friday, but Bentil followed up a 24-point performance in the win over Evansville with 21 critical points on Friday.

This win sets up a matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence on Sunday night, which means that Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn — the two best players in the country, sorry Ben Simmons — will be going head-to-head.

Oh. Hell. Yes.

No. 14 Cal goes 0-2 in Las Vegas Invitational

Jaylen Brown
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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After midnight on the east coast on Thanksgiving, No. 14 Cal blew a 15 point second half lead against San Diego State, allowing the Aztecs to use a 30-6 run to put away the game and advance to the final of the Las Vegas Invitational. That’s the same San Diego State team had scored 43 points in a loss to Arkansas-Little Rock last week.

Not 24 hours later, the Golden Bears were shredded defensively by the Richmond Spiders, losing 94-90 in the consolation game of a four-team tournament they were considered to be the heavy favorite in.

It’s a disappointing two-game stretch for Cal, who entered the season as a Pac-12 favorite and had looked the part for the first four games of the season.

And the issue appears to be on the defensive end of the floor.

Richmond is a good Atlantic 10 team. Terry Allen and Marshall Wood are high-major big men, Shawn’Dre Jones is a jitterbug at the point and Chris Mooney runs a Princeton-esque system that is very difficult to prepare for without a day in-between games. So it’s not really surprising that the Spiders gave Cal a fight.

But 94 points?

On the heels of giving up 44 points in the second half against the offensively-challenged Aztecs?

That’s a problem, one that I’m sure that Cuonzo Martin is going to address this week in practice. Martin has managed to put together a roster that is build for small-ball, with four talented perimeter players surrounding a first round pick in the post. But that’s not the style that he’s known for. Martin played his college ball at Purdue in the Gene Keady days. He cut his teeth as a head coach at Missouri State in the Missouri Valley. His team’s at Tennessee were known for being tough and physical defensively.

That’s how Martin coaches, which is part of the reason Cal had such hype entering the year.

The talents of Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews on a team with a coach that gets teams to defend the way Martin does? It’s no surprise that pundits would be optimistic.

But as of now, they have some work to do defensively if they want to live up to that hype.