Denzel Valentine‘s stat line from Tuesday’s 78-48 thrashing of the North Florida Ospreys is symptomatic of how Michigan State‘s season has begun. There are pleasing results (11 points, season-high) and periods of brilliance (six rebounds, four assists), but there are enough exasperating moments (four turnovers) to drive coaches and fans mad as they try to figure out just how good the Spartans will be this season.
Michigan State is off to a seemingly tidy 9-1 start, with wins over Kentucky and Oklahoma in MSU’s pocket as the Spartans head for conference play. A look below the surface, however, shows that there have been some close calls in the early going. An even closer look suggests that the team overwhelms opponents when Valentine plays well, and the Spartans struggle to put away teams on nights when Valentine is a glorified bystander on offense.
It may seem perplexing to think that the least-heralded starter on the team is especially significant to his team’s success, but in the team’s sole loss, as well as its three wins decided by 10 points or less, Valentine scored a total of 17 points while shooting 6-of-25 from the field.
The other areas of his game were wildly inconsistent in those four contests, which couldn’t have helped the team’s cause. In a four-point win over Kentucky, Valentine had five assists but committed four personal fouls and grabbed only one rebound. Against Columbia, Valentine scored 10 points (a season-high until Tuesday) but had no assists and only two rebounds.
Valentine then secured five rebounds when North Carolina plowed through the Spartans in East Lansing two weeks ago, but he only had two points. Finally, in his most Jekyll-and-Hyde performance of the season thus far, Valentine shot 0-of-7 and scored zero points yet had four steals, four assists and six rebounds in Saturday’s 67-63 squeaker over the Oakland Golden Grizzlies.
The last two games on the non-conference schedule at 9-1 Texas on Saturday and home against the 3-4 New Orleans Privateers will provide MSU with two distinct opportunities. Beating the Longhorns would give the team another quality win that will help for March Madness purposes, and playing the Privateers gives the Spartans one final game to work out any leftover kinks before opening Big Ten Conference action at Penn State.
Texas will work to shut down Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris (if he’s healthy enough to play) so Valentine must step up to the plate like he did tonight when he had five points, a rebound and an assist in the first two minutes of the game.
Valentine averages 1.6 turnovers per game, which is a considerable amount considering the fact that he’s often the fourth or fifth option on offense. If and when he finds himself in the lane against Texas, he needs to be strong with the ball because the Longhorns have two of the nation’s top-10 shot blockers.
The contest against the Privateers should present Valentine with a chance to assert himself on offense as the game should not be closely contested. Tom Izzo will likely want to limit the minutes of his star players in the last game before the real fun starts.
The next two games will say a lot about Valentine, which means they’ll also say a lot about the future prospects of Michigan State as a whole. If he can contribute across the score sheet with any degree of consistency, the team will reach its usual juggernaut status on schedule. If he keeps up his current chutes and ladders game, the Spartans faithful will have to keep the Pepto Bismol close at hand several more times throughout the course of the season.