Denzel Valentine returns, gets 10 points in Michigan State victory

Denzel Valentine (USATSI)
Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine returned to action Sunday vs. Penn State. (USATSI)

Michigan State beat Penn State 92-65 at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday afternoon, and I’d love to tell you that’s the result of the return of Denzel Valentine.

But that wouldn’t be true.

Truth is, the blowout had more to do with Bryn Forbes, Gavin Schilling and Eron Harris — and their combined 17-of-28 shooting — than anything else. But that’s beside the point. Because the point is that Denzel Valentine is back, and that’s great for Michigan State.

Valentine suffered a knee injury in practice five days before Christmas, three Sundays ago, and had what was described as “very minor” surgery on Dec. 21. The Spartans went 3-1 in his absence by beating Oakland, Minnesota and Illinois while losing at Iowa, which caused them to fall from first to fifth in the Associated Press poll. All things considered, not bad.

And now their best player is back.

Sure, it took Valentine a while to get going Sunday — proof being that he missed his first five field goal attempts and had zero points at halftime. But the senior guard still finished with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes, meaning he’s now averaging 17.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists for the nation’s fifth-ranked team.

That’s National Player of the Year stuff — even if Valentine is no longer the top candidate.

The biggest issue for Valentine, to the extent that there’s an issue at all, is that Oklahoma senior Buddy Hield had three 30-point games while Valentine was sidelined — including that incredible 46-point effort in a triple-overtime loss at Kansas that launched Hield’s Player of the Year campaign in a similar way that similar performances previously launched (or cemented) Player of the Year campaigns for Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison and Texas’ Kevin Durant, as I detailed last week. In other words, Hield is now the leading candidate for National Player of the Year, according to the most.

But Valentine is still right there.

In fact, right now, I’d rank the top Player of the Year candidates this way:

  1. Buddy Hield (Oklahoma)
  2. Kris Dunn (Providence)
  3. Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)
  4. Brice Johnson (North Carolina)
  5. Melo Trimble (Maryland)
  6. Ben Simmons (LSU)
  7. Perry Ellis (Kansas)
  8. Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa)
  9. Grayson Allen (Duke)
  10. Jakob Poeltl (Utah)

Before anybody complains, let me say that I could reasonably replace Ellis, Uthoff, Allen or Poeltl with any combination of Iowa State’s Georges Niang, Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer, Miami’s Sheldon McClellan, SMU’s Nic Moore, Providence’s Ben Bentil, Villanova’s Josh Hart, Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, Baylor’s Rico Gathers, West Virginia’s Devin Williams, Oregon State’s Gary Payton II, Purdue’s A.J. Hammons … so on and so forth. But, again, that’s beside the point. Because the point is that Denzel Valentine is back, Michigan State is healthy, and everything that was on the so-called table a few weeks ago is now there again for the Spartans and their best player.

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