It was only fitting that Denzel Valentine dominate on Valentine’s Day – and he did, finishing with 30 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, three steals and a block in an 88-69 home win over Indiana on Sunday.
“It was a great day,” Valentine said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “It was Valentine’s Day. Huge day for me. We were playing a good team, and I had to step up to the challenge. I had to come out and give my best performance, and my teammates helped me out in that.”
No. 8 Michigan State (21-5, 8-5) led just 41-40 at halftime but dominated thereafter, outscoring Indiana (20-6, 10-3) 47-29 the rest of the way. The Spartans, who earlier this year were ranked No. 1 in the country, have won won five of six after dropping three straight in mid-January.
Those losses, oddly enough, coincided with Valentine’s return from a knee injury.
Why would an elite team struggle upon getting its best player back?
“I just think everybody had to get adjusted to playing with me again,” Valentine said. “It’s not easy to go 13-0 and everybody pretty much has their roles, and then I go out and everybody has to step up. People are playing different minutes and things like that – it just takes time. Teams go through adversity ever year, and ours happened to be in the middle of the year. I just think we had to get used to playing with each other again. I think we’re playing some of our best basketball right now.”
Valentine helped Michigan State to a 13-0 start, during which he had two triple-doubles and was putting up otherworldly numbers. He was far and away the top candidate to win the Wooden Award.
Then the injury happened. Then Buddy Hield happened. Valentine is no longer the favorite to win the award, but he is still very much in the mix.
Not that he’s losing much sleep over it either way.
“Obviously it would be an honor winning the Wooden Award and being player of the year and things like that,” Valentine said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a team sport and winning is the ultimate goal. I try not to focus too much on that. If they give it to him or whoever they give it to, it’s going to be well-deserved. I just try to go out with the approach of winning the basketball game and doing what I can do for the team and let the rest take care of itself.”
Michigan State closes the regular season with five games against unranked Big Ten foes: Wisconsin, Ohio State (twice), Penn State and Rutgers. The Spartans have a legitimate chance of winning 10 of 11 heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
If they were to win that, they’d have a mighty compelling case for getting a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s one thing that me and Matt Costello and Bryn (Forbes) have talked about,” Valentine said. “Trying to win the Big Ten Championship and then going on and getting a good seed in the NCAA Tournament so we can put ourselves in the best position to reach our goal, and that’s the national championship. That’s what we got to do every time we approach the court is think about the seedings and thing like that. All the games, every time we step on the floor, we’re playing for something.”