It took Denzel Valentine all of two games to hijack the national player of the year race, elevate Michigan State to the short list of Final Four favorites and emphatically announce his rise as arguably the most complete offensive force in college basketball.
It's easy to forget now, but the Spartans weren't always projected as a national title front-runner and Valentine wasn't always considered one of the top players in the country. Michigan State began the preseason polls at No. 13, with its senior star slotted in at No. 17 in our ranking of the top 100 players in college hoops. That all changed one cold November evening in Chicago on a neutral floor against then-No. 4 Kansas.
Valentine was a supernova that night, putting up 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists to will the Spartans from 13 points down to upset the Jayhawks. Ever since, it's been clear that a player who has shown marked improvement every season in East Lansing was taking his game to unprecedented heights as a senior.
On the brink of the postseason, there's now no debate that Valentine is one of the two most impressive players in the country, alongside Oklahoma's Buddy Hield. His rise from the No. 98 recruit in the class of 2012 is a testament to both his individual work ethic and Tom Izzo's genius.
How has Valentine turned himself into a superstar as a senior? It's been a four-step process.
1. Changing his body
The first step in Valentine's star turn happened over the summer when he traded fried foods for yoga and sports drinks for water. Take it from Tom Izzo:
"He's got a sloppy body, and what I mean by that is he lifted, he worked out, but minimal changes," Izzo said. "But this year, our nutritionist and strength coach talked him into really getting into the yoga, doing this, doing that. He is always trying to do whatever he can do to improve. (Draymond Green) talked about eating right. Well, what college guy really eats right, you know? And (Valentine) does now. He's just different. And even though he's not Adonis still, his body fat and all that stuff, he's a lot better put together."
It's made a huge difference. Valentine says he feels less tired during games and his body recovers faster. Games like his 30-point, 13-assist, five-rebound effort against Indiana and his 24 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds against Wisconsin show the hard work and self-discipline have paid off.
2. Becoming a great shooter
Legend has it Izzo was initially hesitant to offer Valentine a scholarship out of high school until he improved his outside shot. All Valentine has done since is get better and better every year from beyond the arc to eventually grow into one of the most dependable three-point shooters in the country.
|3-point percentage||3-point attempts per game|
The increase in both volume and efficiency from three-point range as a senior has made Valentine nearly unstoppable. Ask Boston College (where he went 6-of-9 from deep), Boise State (7-of-12), Nebraska (6-of-8) or Ohio State (5-of-6). There's no real way to defend Valentine when his jumper is falling.
3. Growing into a full-time point guard on offense
The turning point in MSU's season might have been when starting point guard Lourawls "Tum-Tum" Nairn went out of the lineup with a foot injury following a Jan. 14 loss to Iowa. That allowed Valentine to handle point guard duties on offense, and also got another shooter on the floor next to him in Eron Harris.
The result is a lineup with pure shooters on the wings in Harris and Bryn Forbes, a long, athletic freshman in the front court in Deyonta Davis and a strong, experienced senior anchor in the middle in Matt Costello. Everything runs through Valentine, who has displayed incredible instincts as a ball handler and passer all season.
Valentine has 10 or more assists in four of his last seven games, and that's no aberration. He's the best shot creator in the country right now. Just look at his assist percentage through the years:
|Assist percentage||Assists per game|
That 44.6 assist rate is No. 2 in the country this year, per KenPom.
4. Defensive improvement
You can't play for Tom Izzo unless you defend, so we'll turn it over to the legendary Spartans coach for this one:
Tom Izzo: Denzel Valentine's defense is much improved. Thought about putting him on Yogi Ferrell because he can defend guards now.— Jeff Rabjohns (@JeffRabjohns) February 14, 2016
Izzo says Denzel Valentine definitely belongs in Player of the Year race. Says Valentine's defense makes him better than others. #iubb— Andrew Vailliencourt (@AndrewVcourt) February 14, 2016
Izzo on POY race: "I don't think Valentine gets credit for his defense. He's become a better shooter. He can pass and score." #iubb— Chris Goff (@CgoffJG) February 14, 2016
"My athleticism is always going to be the 'con' of my game, but I just have to improve that with lifting, agility drills, conditioning," Valentine said in November, and it's come true this season.
A knee injury cost Valentine four games in the middle of the year. Now he's back to the height of his powers at the right time. Izzo has a way of getting his teams to peak in March, and these Spartans are doing it again. It helps when you have the best player in the country, and Valentine has grown into exactly that.