Big Ten

Big Ten hoops preview: Valentine, Spartans aim to get back to Final Four


Big Ten hoops preview: Valentine, Spartans aim to get back to Final Four

If there are two things that stand out the most about Michigan State’s basketball program under Tom Izzo, who’s now in his 21st year helming the Spartans, it’s the Final Fours and the players who took lead roles in getting those teams there.

People remember the banners that come with a trip to college basketball’s annual pinnacle. They remember the names like Mateen Cleaves and Draymond Green.

Denzel Valentine is looking to be the next name on that list.

“I try to be that way because I want to be mentioned with all the greats,” Valentine said last month at Big Ten basketball media day. “Just striving to be that every day. It’s a challenge, but at the end of the day, you’ve got a goal and you want to achieve it, so you’ve got to do what it takes. That’s what I try to do, try to believe in.

“I want to put my footprint on the legacy, be mentioned in the record books with all the greats.”

Valentine’s well on his way. He helped lead Michigan State to its seventh Final Four of the Izzo Era last season, coming a game away from playing for a national title, that dream only upended by a loss to eventual national champion Duke in the national semifinal.

Valentine was an integral cog in the machine that helped the Spartans reach Indianapolis. He started all 39 games, the only player on the team to do so. He earned All-Big Ten Third Team honors and was the only player in the league to rank in the top 15 in scoring, rebounding and assists. He ranked second on the Spartans in scoring, rebounding and assists. And Valentine came up huge during the NCAA tournament, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds in five games, including a 22-point, 11-rebound effort in the Final Four loss to Duke.

[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Can loaded Terps meet massive expectations?]

This season, with last year’s seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson gone from the program, Valentine will have to do even more, but that’s a challenge he’s perfectly willing to accept. He’s learned from the guys who came before him, and he wants to join the likes of Cleaves and Green, who made multiple Final Fours during their collegiate careers. Valentine is taking on a leadership role similar to those guys, and he’s using their lessons to get this year’s team back to where it was just a few months ago.

“You’ve just got to hold everybody accountable every day. That’s what they did,” Valentine said. “Also, just being tough. Our motto at Michigan State is, ‘Players play and tough players win.’ Holding everybody accountable and not letting anybody outwork you, that’s been the biggest two things, and that’s what Michigan State stands for.

“If you want to be great, you’ve got to live up to that standard, no matter whether it’s off the court or on the court. How you eat, do you hang out with your teammates a lot, how often do you work on your game, holding each other accountable like that. It’s been the standard at Michigan State.”

Unsurprisingly, for a program that measures its success in Final Fours, last season’s loss to Duke left a bad taste in the Spartans’ mouths. Most 20-point defeats will, though this one was the final hurdle to clear before playing for a national title. It came with its positives, showing that group of players what could be achieved. After all, Michigan State was a No. 7 in last season’s NCAA tournament. All the other Final Four teams were No. 1 seeds.

Inspiration and motivation. Two good things to have heading into a new season.

“We were so close to winning a national championship last year with the team that we had, and we know we’re more talented this year,” Valentine said. “We were up on Duke, 14-6, in the first half. We could’ve easily kept our foot on the gas and won that game and maybe have played Wisconsin in the championship game, and that would’ve been a rematch, and we were about to beat them in the Big Ten championship last year.

“We know that we can do it, we were capable of doing it, and we fell short. So we felt like we let ourselves down, but we also accomplished a lot. It gives you motivation in both ways. And I think that’s perfect for this year because we’ve got a lot of players  that are talented enough to get there.”

[BIG TEN PREVIEW: Hoosiers look to reach top of conference]

Despite losing Trice and Dawson, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Spartans can get back to national-championship contention. Valentine is obviously a big one, but fellow returners Bryn Forbes and Tum Tum Nairn are reasons for excitement in the back court. And Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling are back as big men.

But the most exciting thing might be the addition of Eron Harris, a former West Virginia Mountaineer who transferred in ahead of last season and sat out his requisite year during the Final Four run. During the 2013-14 season, Harris averaged 17.2 points at West Virginia, and his addition is a big deal for a team that already has championship aspirations.

“I think he'll fit in well,” Izzo said of Harris. “He can really shoot the ball. He's very athletic. I think the two things he had to work on is finding a shot he didn't like, that was one, and I think he's made some progress. And guarding somebody, and I think he's made some progress in that area. I really like Eron. He's worked hard. He's a gym rat. I think, if there's one thing I'll say about him and Denzel, they kind of bring forward — those guys have kind of led some other guys — we have a lot of guys who have turned into gym rats. And gym rats is every coach's dream, and definitely Eron Harris is one of them.”

In the end, Izzo, as always, is Michigan State’s greatest strength. He’s recruited and developed the players who have reached all those Final Fours, and his players’ love for him and the program he’s built is evident. Valentine talked about a love for the program as one of the factors driving him. Green expressed that love this offseason with a $3 million donation to the program.

And with new freshmen coming into the fold this season — including a pair of Rivals top-100 recruits in Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid — they’ll get to witness firsthand what it’s like to enter a program that expects a championship mentality from the get go.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]

“He expects that out of people, and he’s not going to expect anything less. He’s expecting greatness,” Valentine said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got to step up to the plate and do it or else you’re just going to be lost in the mix. Freshmen coming in, they’ve just got to take on that championship-greatness standard and live up to it. That’s what freshmen and younger guys have to do.”

Those young guys have a great role model in Valentine. And Izzo complimented his leadership during media day, something he’ll certainly do again and again this season. Izzo said last season’s leadership — which of course included Valentine — was great, and he said it’s great again this season.

The Spartans are hoping that’s not the only similarity to last season. They want to reach that Final Four again.

“Last year just proves that if you stay focused and you stay motivated and you keep working through tough times that we can do anything. We’ve got a lot of new weapons this year that people didn’t see last year, and we’re more talented,” Valentine said. “If we stay consistent throughout the year and work through tough times, I think we can win a national championship.”

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.