When you play at Michigan State, it takes something special to get into the same conversation as Magic Johnson and Draymond Green.
But Denzel Valentine did it Tuesday night, scoring 29 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and handing out 12 assists, becoming just the fourth Spartan ever to record a triple-double.
The sensational performance put Valentine in some elite company, alongside Johnson, Green and Charlie Bell.
“That’s great company to be with: Draymond, Magic and Charlie Bell,” Valentine said. “It’s great company.”
Valentine was tremendous Tuesday, putting the Spartans on his back and leading a comeback win over fourth-ranked Kansas in the Champions Classic at the United Center.
Michigan State trailed by 11 midway through the second half, but Valentine took over the game, scoring 10 points in a stretch that ended with a 3-pointer that gave the Spartans their first lead since the first half.
He owned the end of the game, putting on a performance that could go down as the season’s finest — and the season’s not even a week old yet.
“The last five minutes I was ready to pass out,” he said. “Credit to Mike Garland, he said, ‘You’re playing too well to lose the game.’ I was like, ‘Might as well just finish it off and get the win.’ Credit to my teammates, they helped me push through.”
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Valentine’s performance put him front and center on the national stage in a big way. The Champions Classic provided an opportunity with the college basketball world watching, and Valentine seized it, crashing the Player of the Year conversation while surrounded by rosters full of one-and-done superstars.
Despite coming off the program’s seventh trip to the Final Four of the Tom Izzo Era, the Spartans were the lowest-ranked team in the building Tuesday, behind No. 2 Kentucky, No. 4 Kansas and No. 5 Duke. Valentine showed once more that Michigan State can compete with and beat just about anybody.
Valentine said before the season started that he wanted to make his mark on the program in his senior season, get himself up there with the likes of Mateen Cleaves and Green. Of course, that means winning games not posting stats. Regardless of which was more important — and make no mistake, the winning is far more important — Valentine did both Tuesday night.
For Izzo, it was yet another example of how far Valentine’s come. We often get to see a progression with players at Michigan State, as they tend to stick around for several seasons with the intent of adding their names to the list of the program’s greats. Valentine wasn’t always a guy capable of this. Now, he’s turning in a triple-double and making fans and observers think the sky could once again be the limit for the Spartans.
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“Everybody will be impressed with the triple-double. I’m impressed with the one turnover. And that’s been Denzel,” Izzo said. “I made the comment a couple years ago, instead of being Magic, sometimes he’s tragic. And that’s because when he tries to do too much. I thought he played within himself (Tuesday). He had to push the action a little bit because we just didn’t have enough guns on the court sometimes with certain lineups in there.
“He sucked it up. He gives me credit, I give him credit. The kid, he’s like Draymond. There’s a million things he’s not good enough at, but winning is something he’s good enough at, work ethic is something he’s good enough at, and basketball IQ is something he’s good enough at. And those things just won us a big game.”