With Travis Trice and Branden Dawson out of eligibility, Michigan State’s summer trip to Italy came at just the right time when it comes to accounting for those departures. And while sophomore Tum Tum Nairn, who played well in four games against increasingly tough opposition in Italy, is the clear first choice at the point head coach Tom Izzo was looking to find an option who can give Nairn an occasional break from that role.
Enter senior Denzel Valentine, who played the point throughout his high school career before spending more time off the ball in his first three seasons at Michigan State. The Spartans’ trip to Italy gave Valentine the opportunity to spend more time as the team’s primary ball-handler, and while his head coach was complimentary of the Lansing native’s play there’s also the acknowledgement that there’s more progress to be made before the season begins.
“That takes a lot out of you,” Valentine said after playing wing and point in four exhibition games in MSU’s recent trip to Italy. “You’re playing defense against pros, it’s fast-paced, you turn right around and you’ve got to run the break. Definitely different because we pushed it every time. It was definitely challenging.”
MSU coach Tom Izzo said Valentine’s play as Tum Tum Nairn’s primary supplement at point guard “made me feel good because he really pushed the ball and he did some great things.”
Michigan State has some role adjustments to make in advance of the 2015-16 season, with Bryn Forbes needing to be more productive as a scorer and freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid among the other players who will need to contribute if the Spartans are to contend in the Big Ten as expected.
But the most important player for Michigan State is Valentine, whose versatility has been on display throughout his time in East Lansing. The only difference heading into his senior season is that he’ll spend even more time in the role of getting Michigan State going offensively from the point guard position.
Tom Izzo calls Denzel Valentine’s play during foreign tour ‘unbelievable’
“Denzel (Valentine), the first three games was unbelievable,” Izzo during an interview The Drive with Jack on WQTX, via Kyle of Austin of MLive.com. “He could have been the MVP of the whole tournament.”
Valentine began the trip with 16 points in a lopsided win over Basket Fiorentina. From there, the competition got much tougher, as the Spartans dropped their second game, 93-75, to the Russian National Team, a team ranked sixth in the FIBA world rankings. In a losing effort, Valentine had a game-high 21 points with five assists in 34 minutes of action.
He followed that performance up with 23 points in a 90-69 loss to the Italian National Team, ranked No. 36 in the world. In four games, the senior wing averaged 17.0 points per game.
The 6-foot-5 Valentine is coming off a junior campaign where he averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assits per game. His offseason also included a stint with USA Basketball in the 2015 Pan-Am Games.
Gavin Schilling and freshman Matt McQuaid were also praised by Izzo in the interview. Byrn Forbes scored in double figures three times on the trip, while Tum Tum Nairn recorded 16 assists to six turnovers in the three games against the senior national teams.
Michigan State’s impact transfer guard Eron Harris sat out the trip after his offseason arrest.
Michigan State lost to Russia, 93-75, in the second game of the team’s foreign exhibition tour of Italy on Friday. Russia is ranked No. 6 in the FIBA world rankings.
The Spartans round out the trip with games against the national teams from Italy and Georgia. While Michigan State is gearing up for the 2015-16 season, the three senior national teams are preparing for next month’s EuroBasket, where they will attempt to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games.
“That was a boys versus men game tonight and not that it shouldn’t have been, either,” Izzo said, via the Michigan State athletic site. “They are 25 to 35 years old, and I thought one of the more physical European teams that I have seen. I thought that was good for us. We did some good things, but we did more poor things as far as how we guarded.”
Michigan State was led by Denzel Valentine with a game-high 21 points and Gavin Schilling with 17. Tum Tum Nairn, another member from last year’s Final Four team, also had a notable stat line with five assists to just one turnover in almost 22 minutes of action. This trip, especially the games against the three national teams will be big for Nairn, who will look to take a step forward in the Sparty back court now that Travis Trice has graduated.
The Spartans are playing these four games without transfer guard Eron Harris, who was suspended for the trip along with guard Alvin Ellis.
In the first game of the trip, Michigan State easily handled Basket Fiorentina, 98-54, behind 18 points from Bryn Forbes.
The Spartans continue the trip on Saturday against Italy.