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.
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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.”
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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.
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“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.”