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Denzel Valentine Throws Name into Early POY Race with Epic Triple-Double vs. KU

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterNovember 18, 2015

Nov 17, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Denzel Valentine (45) is defended by Kansas Jayhawks guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) during the first half at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

This summer in Los Angeles at the Nike Skills Academy, Diana Taurasi spoke to a group of preseason All-Americans and future lottery picks, and she singled out Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine.

"I've seen you play," Taurasi said to Valentine. "You're in it. You're locked in. Every play."

On Tuesday night at the Champions Classic in Chicago, the rest of America got to see what Taurasi was talking about.

Valentine's triple-double (29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists) carried the Spartans to a 79-73 win over fourth-ranked Kansas in a game they had no business winning. Kansas had the better talent. The Jayhawks even had more experience. But they had no idea where to go or what to do with the ball in crunch time.

The Jayhawks were lost on a country road with no signal. Valentine had a built-in GPS and the ball on a string.

He was, as Taurasi explained, in it.

This is what college basketball and its most important month has turned into: You either win by overwhelming opponents with young one-and-dones (see: Kentucky every season; Duke last year), or you find guys like Valentine who know how to play and win but may lack something that keeps them from leaving early for the NBA.

Nov 17, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts during the second half against the Duke Blue Devils at the United Center. Kentucky won 74-63. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

If we're making way-too-early predictions, the consensus at this year's Champions Classic, like last year's, should be that Kentucky is the favorite to cut down the nets in Houston.

John Calipari has proven that he can win—and win big—building around those one-and-done phenoms with a few veterans sprinkled in, then rinse and repeat.

The alternative is finding a guy like Valentine and building a roster around him. Someone like Valentine can be the key piece to building a title contender. In fact, it was Kentucky sophomore Tyler Ulis—whose limitation (his height) will keep him in school for four years—and Valentine who were the biggest difference-makers on Tuesday night. 

Nov 17, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Denzel Valentine (45) reacts with teammates against the Kansas Jayhawks during the first half at the United Center. Michigan State defeats Kansas 79-73.  Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Even better than the numbers was how Valentine calmly dissected KU's defense and took momentum in the final 10 minutes. After Kansas took an 11-point lead with 9:25 remaining, the Spartans went on a 22-10 run and Valentine scored or assisted on all 22 points.

Joe Rexrode @joerexrode

Tom Izzo, after detailing all the things Valentine does well and comparing him to Draymond Green. "Thank God he's mine."

It was one of the best single-game performances we've ever seen at the Champions Classic, which has featured some of the best talent in the NBA. Valentine, who is a borderline pro, put himself out front with Providence's Kris Dunn in the way-too-early National Player of the Year race.

For Valentine to have a chance at Player of the Year, the Spartans are going to have to be more consistent than they were a year ago. This night was a good sign they're headed in that direction.

A year ago, the Spartans limped out to a 9-5 record, including a loss to the Jayhawks, and then Valentine and Travis Trice led them on a surprising Final Four run in March.

Valentine told me this summer that he believed he had a better sense of how to get things rolling much earlier.

"I think this year we need to hit the ground running, be more focused," he said. "We didn't play as hard at the beginning of the year maybe because it was a new team. Maybe because people didn't know their role. I averaged like eight points my sophomore year. Travis averaged like six...I think this year everyone knows their role."

Izzo has built a team full of shooters who know their job is to toe the three-point line and wait for Valentine to deliver the ball or take it himself. They should be more consistent, because Valentine has this song and dance down pat.

"I tell Denzel, he's played in more big games than any human being on the planet because we played an incredible schedule his three years, and we've played in some unique places," Izzo told media afterward. "I think Denzel, that's what he enjoys most about being here, and I hope that's why guys come here is to play in these kind of games."

Kansas fans shouldn't hyperventilate too much over Tuesday's loss. The Jayhawks have more depth than any team in the country. They could use Cheick Diallo to grab a rebound and protect the rim, but what the Jayhawks really need is for one of their veteran guards to take a cue from Valentine and learn how to control a game, make sure his team gets good shots and not bury his head and hope for the best.

The Jayhawks could benefit from learning how to be locked in, how to be in it.

Valentine sure is, and on Tuesday night, we got to see what that looks like.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.

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