With Probable Return to the Starting Lineup Tonight For Denzel Valentine, Tom Izzo Talks How His Team Adjusts

Denzel Valentine December 2015.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard
Denzel Valentine December 2015. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard

Breslin Center

East Lansing, MI

The #4 Michigan State Spartans return to action tonight in a game that tips off on ESPN at 7PM. The 16-1 Spartans look to avenge their only loss of the year, an 83-70 loss in Iowa City on December 29 of last year.

MSU has offered no excuses for the loss, but it is truthful to mention that it was the game after Tom Izzo learned of the passing of his father Carl and the Spartans were without their player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine. In the wake of Valentine’s absence the Spartans needed the deepest roster of the Izzo era to step up.

So how did the Spartans handle the loss and more importantly the transition to having him back and probably in the starting lineup tonight? Izzo discussed it.

“I think the biggest thing is how seamless it is. We saw a couple years ago when we lost three guys for a while. I think it was Appling, Payne and Dawson and they came back and it was a disaster for a couple games. Just because maybe it was a too many guys were gone. Maybe they didn’t understand how to come back as well as Denzel. The first half, he had some open shots, but he rushed a few of them. I told him at halftime, you’re going to have to figure out if you’re going to let the game and in the second half I thought he was just excellent. His defense was better. He talked more. I keep reminding him, speaking of Sexton. We had a meeting and I brought his dad in because we were trying to decide when to play. I think his dad gave him the ultimate line. I know doctors can tell you and a coach can tell you when you’re physically ready, but I’m more worried about when are you mentally ready. When are you still going to be the same leader? When are you still doing this? When are you still going to be talking to guys? I didn’t think in the first half he was that and that was a little bit of an adjustment. In the second half, I thought he did it off the charts and I think now being out is going to help for these reasons. Yes, we had a couple guys get better, Harris, maybe Costello, maybe DD got more touches. No. 2, I think Zel had a tough as a summer as you can have with a hernia surgery then the LeBron camp then the USA camp then Italy. Maybe he did need a little bit of a break, so it was forced. I think he’s going to be fresher. I think also it helps to sit on the bench, sit with the coach and talk to the coaches as a coach instead of as a player. When you’re sitting out, I use them that way. I say what do you think? So I think it’s gonna be more seamless, because it wasn’t too long. He’s a unique player. He’s loved by his teammates – there’s no jealousy, which creates problems sometimes. But I still think there will be a little bit of adjustment. I think in peoples’ minds, I can see it already – well, we lost to Iowa, but we didn’t have Denzel. Well, Uthoff didn’t play very good, either. That isn’t going to make the difference. Where Denzel might make the difference is if he can influence some of the other guys to play better than they played at Iowa. But it’s not all going to fall in Denzel’s hands.”

When Denzel went down it was red shirt junior Eron Harris who stepped into the starting lineup, and he shined. Harris is averaging 14 points a game and nearly five rebounds as well. He will transition back to the bench according to Izzo, but don’t think that means he loses an important role. MSU must have Harris to win a national title and Izzo has made it clear to him that although not starting, he is a significant part of this team.

“Yeah, and I talked to Eron about it since the season started. The game plan is he will move (Denzel) back into the starting lineup. Whether it will be this game or one more game I don’t know yet. My thoughts were he probably will and it’s my decision, but it’s gonna kinda go how we play and I don’t think it will affect Eron’s minutes at all. Right now Eron is playing probably the best defense he has since he’s been here. His offense, he’s been very consistent. He is playing well and what I got to do is get Bryn playing a little better on the defensive end cause he’s playing well on the offensive end. I think I have a very good rotation there if we get McQuaid to quit being a freshman and with the serious ups and downs, which is gonna happen some, I think we’ll have a great rotation there. Even with Javon Bess, now when you play teams that are bigger like this team or Purdue, he gives us something too on the perimeter. So I think we have a good combination of 10 guys that we can really get some valuable, not only play out of, but some subbing shouldn’t be as big of a fall off. In Eron’s case, I think he’ll play the same amount of minutes, or very close to it, it will just be in different ways.

In the last contest against Iowa Bryn Forbes who has been the offensive catalyst on the offensive side with Valentine tout, but he was not a factor in that tilt. Forbes only had three points in 28 minutes.

To be fair, former Lansing Sexton star and friend of Forbes and Valentine, Anthony Clemmons the Hawkeyes star guard was a big reason for Forbes struggles. He played lights out defense looking more like Joe Dumars with his amazing defensive skills. Was Clemmons lock down defense the only reason Forbes struggled? Izzo addressed it.

“I think part of it was that. I don’t think all of it was that. Bryn got into foul trouble in the first half and sat on the bench for at least 10 minutes. Then, in the second half, he got his first foul 3 minutes into the game. As I tell the NCAA and everybody else, it’s not just fouling out of games sometimes. It’s how you play when you have two, three and four fouls, and everybody does that differently. I also think Clemmons did a very good job on him. I think we maybe didn’t call enough stuff for him. I think it’s one of those things where everybody gets some credit, meaning, from their team and everybody gets some blame on ours. Did we screen well enough? Did the coach call enough plays? Did we get him in a position to be successful and did he do enough? I’d say we dropped the ball on our side and they raised the ball on their side, so we are going to do a better job this time.”

The Spartans shot only 42% the last time these teams met. Who knows what they shoot tonight, but there is blood in the water and the Spartans are already circling like sharks ready to redeem the season lone loss tonight.