Michigan State Spartans Are Peaking At Right Time

Jan 23, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Matt Costello (10) celebrates with guard Denzel Valentine (45) after defeating the Maryland Terrapins at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 23, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans forward Matt Costello (10) celebrates with guard Denzel Valentine (45) after defeating the Maryland Terrapins at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports /

The Michigan State Spartans are arguably the hottest team in college basketball and, as is often the case, are peaking as they head into Championship Week and the NCAA tournament.

East Lansing, Mich., has seen a lot of great basketball players come through Michigan State University, including Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. Most recently, a second-round pick and Michigan State alum, Draymond Green, has become one of the most memorable Spartans.

Green played with passion, was a leader, distributed the ball, fought for rebounds; he was the ultimate coaches player.

Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans are 26-5 and enter Championship Week as the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. They are peaking at the perfect time. The Spartans have won 10 of their last 11 games, including a win over the Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana Hoosiers, the seventh-ranked Maryland Terrapins and the 18th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers.

This isn’t a surprise to anybody who has followed college basketball during Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State.

This team is a complete embodiment of Izzo’s past teams all gelled together. Collectively, they may be one of the best teams in Michigan State history when the season comes to a close. That’s a lot to think about for a team that will be going to their 19th NCAA tournament since Izzo took over the program in 1995.

They have the potential to get to their eighth Final Four under Izzo and possibly win their third national championship (1979, 2000) in school history.

Seniors Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello will be the keys for the Spartans going deep in March and possibly to the final weekend of the college basketball season. As a team, the Spartans are deep with guards Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid playing well and forwards Gavin Schilling and Deyonta Davis matching the play in the frontcourt.

The one constant is Valentine and his leadership.

The Superstar

Valentine is drawing comparisons to MSU greats such as Magic and Green. Everyone knows the impact Magic had on the NBA in his Hall of Fame career, but Green has provided a unique talent that can’t be matched. But Green sees a lot of himself in Valentine, who deservedly draws plenty of comparisons.

The two are similar, and adding Magic into the mix shows how great the trio of Spartans are. Here’s a statistical comparison of their final seasons at Michigan State:

Denzel Valentine: 19.6 ppg, 7.5 apg, 7.4 rpg
Draymond Green: 16.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 10.6 rpg
Magic Johnson: 17.1 ppg, 8.4 apg, 7.3 rpg

There is a great respect between Green and Valentine. In fact, the two stay in contact through text messages.

“I have texted him saying this is really inspiring watching him play, because me and a guy like him, ‘He can’t do this and he can’t do that,'” Valentine said of Green according to USA Today. “For him to be doing this, it gives me hope.”

November 24, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) celebrates during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Former Michigan State Spartan, Draymond Green (23) brings high praise for MSU guard Denzel Valentine. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

“I think he’s paving the way for me a little bit as far as the NBA…”

The two are built similarly. Green was 6-foot-7 and weighed 230 pounds. Valentine is 6-foot-5 and weighs 220 pounds. The difference is that Green played power forward, like he does now with the Golden State Warriors. Valentine plays as a do-it-all guard on both ends of the floor.

“He’s the guard version of me,” Green said of Valentine. “Is he a 1 or 2? He’s a basketball player. Put him at 1, 2 or 3, he’s going to get it done. He’s going to make plays, he’s going to score the basketball. He can defend. He works his ass off.”

That’s high praise from one of the NBA’s best players. Like Green, Valentine is the go-to-guy for the Spartans. When Valentine went out earlier this season and missed four games with a knee injury, the Spartans slowed down a bit. Thought they went 3-1 during that time, they beat Minnesota and Illinois, teams they can beat without Valentine, and Oakland.

The lone loss came to Iowa, which started the season with a 20-5 record before dropping four of their last five games to close the regular season.

Veteran Leadership

Costello has stepped up this season. He’s averaging 10.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in 22.2 minutes per game. He is an emotional leader that plays with his heart. One of the most memorable moments of his career comes from a 15-point, 12-rebound performance against a then-ranked seventh Maryland team.

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  • Forbes is scoring 15.1 points per game for the Spartans. The Cleveland State transfer is in his second season with the Spartans and is shooting 50.5 percent from three-point range. That is good for fifth in the country. The sharpshooter is sixth in three-pointers made with 104 and trails Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield by 20 three-pointers for first place.

    Harris, a junior, is scoring 9.3 points per game and filled in nicely in Valentine’s four-game absence. The West Virginia transfer is shooting 43.2 percent from the field and 42.0 from three-point range this season. He is another weapon that has had his fair share of big games for the Spartans.

    The Supporting Cast

    True freshmen Davis and McQuaid have played well this season. Davis is averaging 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and is shooting 60.4 percent from the field. He has also been big on the defensive end with 1.9 blocks per game. McQuaid is shooting 40.7 percent from three-point range and is averaging 3.7 points per game off the bench.

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    Seniors Schilling and Colby Wollenman aren’t stat-sheet stuffers, but they bring good production off the bench. They combine for 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. If the Spartans’ bigs get into foul trouble, they are both capable of answering the call.

    The list goes on as Izzo likes to keep a deep bench. Since he keeps a deep bench, every player has seen a good amount of playing time and will be capable of filling their roles as needed.

    Moving Forward

    The Spartans enter the Big Ten tournament as the second seed and will take on the winner of the Ohio State-Penn State game. The bracket is sets up nicely as they would not have to play Iowa, the only team that they lost to twice, or Purdue, until the championship game.

    They could face Wisconsin in the semifinals if both teams make it that far, a team they lost to by one point on the road and beat by 12 at the Breslin Center.

    It’s clear that Valentine is at full strength and the team is rolling into the NCAA tournament healthy and confident, barring any injury. Having won 10 of their last 11 games, the Spartans are one of the hottest teams in basketball and have always played well under Izzo in March.

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    Michigan State’s continued success late in the season can be contributed to the depth and confidence Izzo builds in his program. This season is no different for a team that is built around a star in Valentine, much like his Final Four team led by Green. March is always a fun time, but it’s often better when Izzo’s Spartans are at the top of their game.