EAST LANSING, Mich.–Denzel Valentine isn’t mad about Michigan State being the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
And really, coach Tom Izzo isn’t either.
This week marks the first time since an early three-week stretch in 2013-14 that Michigan State has sat atop the college basketball rankings.
However, Valentine realizes that occupying the crest of the hill “comes with certain responsibilities.” Most of them include maintaining a level head, mature outlook and all of that standard stuff.
Par for the course, no less, because at the end of the day, it’s only early December, and the Spartans senior wants “more than just being No. 1 nine games into the season.” Being undefeated (9-0) is nice, but everyone–if they hadn’t before–is now gunning for Michigan State.
“(Being No. 1) doesn’t mean a whole lot, because our goal is the national championship, and that’s what we want,” said Valentine, who averages 19.9 points per game, 7.9 assists–the fourth-most in the country–and has a pair of triple-doubles this year. “We just have to keep playing hard every day–don’t overlook anybody, because anybody can beat you if you don’t come ready to play.”
Valentine, not to mention fellow senior Bryn Forbes, knows all about having to defend against those types of teams–the ones that want nothing more to than to knock off the top-rated for the sake of knocking off the top-rated. Back in the day, Valentine and Forbes were the hunted for three years while playing for state power Lansing Sexton.
During their junior and senior years, they capped their prep runs with back-to-back Class B state titles in 2011 and 2012. As sophomores, they were part of the Big Red’s state runner-up squad. They were either No. 1 or close to it for most of that time.
Three years ago, and then just a sophomore, Matt McQuaid contributed to a run with No. 1-ranked Duncanville in Texas. Today, he’s averaging a shade beneath four points for one of the most complete teams in the country.
“There’s definitely a lot more importance up here–it means a lot more to me,” said the 6’4,” 175-pound shooter who broke out during Michigan State’s 67-61 win over then-No. 4-ranked Kansas. At this point, McQuaid is having fun and enjoying the quick start. But he remains steadfast on his “game-by-game” approach, making noticeable improvements each time he takes the floor.
“Usually when you do that, good things will happen,” continued McQuaid, who says everyone has benefited from the direction of upperclassmen such as Valentine and Forbes.
“They’re always just telling us to stay focused,” he said. “You know, Denzel, before practice even started today, he kind of huddled us up and was like, ‘Hey, let’s stay focused now, alright? We want to stay on top. We’ve got a mission to do, so let’s do it.'”
A week ago, Valentine hinted that he knew a No. 1 ranking was around the corner. The No. 3-ranked Spartans had just dug themselves from a 13-point hole to beat Louisville, 71-67, at the Breslin Center, and Maryland, then ranked No. 2, had lost 89-81 the night before to No. 9-ranked North Carolina.
Two days before, then No. 1-ranked Kentucky had struggled against Illinois State. Three days later on Dec. 3, John Calipari’s Wildcats lost 87-77 to UCLA. The scenario had played itself out in the Spartans’ favor, but most of them didn’t find out until after the fact–much later in the day during team activities on Monday.
“When we first saw it, we were excited, you know,” said Forbes, who was among the last to hear the news. “Everybody wants to be ranked No. 1. But then when we come into practice, it’s not about rankings–we’re not even thinking about that. It’s about game time. ‘What do we have to do to win the next one?’
I mean, we’re obviously excited about it. We’ve obviously talked about it. I mean, I’ve talked about it with everybody. We all talked about it in the locker room. But once we stepped back out here, coach put us back to work. It wasn’t too big after that.”
It was a quick celebration, if it could even be called that. A blink-of-eye-fast pat on the back–if that–from Izzo? Does he talk about the accomplishment?
“No. Not a whole a lot,” Forbes said. “He said something about it–but he said it’s not going to change anything.”