Now that we’ve had a few days to let the reality of the most shocking loss in MSU basketball history sink in (and I don’t think that’s hyperbolic), time is as good as any to review what happened in what was, IMO, overall one of the most entertaining and enjoyable seasons in Tom Izzo’s tenure. Yes, the loss to MTSU was crushing to everyone but it shouldn’t obscure the tremendous 4 1/2 months of basketball this group gave us. This was Tom Izzo’s best offensive team and a group that, IMO, probably came as close to reaching its top end potential as any team he’s had, when you look at the totality of the season. This was particularly true of MSU’s senior class, as I think it would be difficult to argue that anyone could have expected better performances out of these four guys in October than they ended up delivering.
DENZEL VALENTINE – I said at the start of the season that I thought he was right there among the handful of legit contenders for Big Ten POY (I believe I listed him along with Melo Trimble, Nigel Hayes and Caris Levert IIRC…might have had Ferrell in there as well but I don’t think so). I thought he had a great chance to have a season similar to the one Draymond Green had as a senior, when he jumped from very good Big Ten player to First Team All American level. Denzel exceeded all of those expectations.
IMO, he’s the best player in the nation. I don’t know whether he’ll beat out Buddy Hield for the Wooden but either way, it won’t change my mind on that front. There wasn’t any area of the game he didn’t impact in a profound way. He led the Big Ten in scoring and assists (easily in the latter category) and was 7th in rebounding and tops in defensive rebounds per game. He was 3rd in FT shooting, 4th in 3 point shooting, 3rd in assist to TO ratio and tops in 3 pointers made per game. He was also very good defensively, often shadowing the opposition’s best wing. When you put it all together, he actually did have a “season for the ages.” You can count on one hand the numbers of guys who have had a similar all around impact in the Big Ten over the past 40 years. Evan Turner is one. Earvin Johnson is another. Is there anyone else?
The thing he did so well which can’t be captured by the numbers is lead. We’ve had a lot of talk over the last couple of days about that subject in one form or another. His coach would tell you that he wasn’t a guy comfortable with calling out teammates, playing bad cop with them, and who knows, maybe that’s what that locker room needed on Friday afternoon. We’ll never know. What I do know is that in every other way, he seemed to pass the test. He was the team’s hardest worker according to his coach. He put his stamp on this team in terms of style of play and approach to the game…when the team’s best player looks to share the ball the way he did, how can anyone else refuse to do the same? As much as anything, what I’ll remember about this team is that, until Friday, they seemed to really enjoy playing the game and with each other, as much or more than any MSU team I’ve ever seen. Denzel is a big, big reason why that was the case.
He’s taken himself from a guy who people thought wouldn’t ever get a sniff of the NBA to perhaps being a borderline Lottery pick, but definitely a first rounder it would seem. Yeah, I hope he lands in the right situation because that matters for every player but I tend to think Denzel is also a guy who if given half a chance can help create the right culture by virtue of the way he plays the game. That’s about the best thing you can say about a player IMO.
BRYN FORBES – I can’t say I saw him becoming the player he did…can’t legitimately claim that. However, what I can say is that I thought while he was at Sexton that he had the potential to be a Big Ten player and I always thought it was strange that he didn’t get offers at that level and Sapp Clemmons (a good player but not a guy I liked as much as Bryn) didn’t. I understand why…he was mostly a one-dimensional guy in HS but man, what a one dimension. I saw him light it up as a 16 year old in AAU, playing with Denzel (who also did not have an MSU offer at the time) and from that moment I thought he was a good enough shooter to be able to play a role at a high level. To their credit, MSU did sort of come around on that front….they really wanted him as a preferred walk on and by the time he had proved to them he could help at this level, they were full up on 2012 scholarships (remember that Costello, Zel and Kaminski all committed WAY early, and MSU was all-in on Gary Harris).
Last year, he proved all of that correct as he was a three point weapon for MSU. However, that was more or less it. He got to a point that he wasn’t a liability defensively, which allowed Izzo to play him more, but it wasn’t exactly a strength of his. He didn’t let himself be satisfied with that, though. He worked on his body and his game. He got stronger, maybe a shade faster, and became a better defender than I think anyone thought possible (or at least likely) even a year ago. That enabled him to go from being a specialist weapon to being a heavy minutes guy, a player MSU counted on as much as anyone not named Denzel. The synergy between those two players was amazing…probably the only thing I saw which came close in the Izzo era was Cleaves and Peterson.
He led the conference and was second in the nation in 3 point percentage and was second in the league in 3 pointers per game, finishing narrowly behind Denzel in that category. Yes, most of his scoring came via the 3 but he became better enough in occasionally going off the dribble and in transition to broaden his contributions. What everyone will remember is the shooting, though. I think he clearly became the best shooter of the Izzo era and joins the discussion with guys like Respert, Skiles, and Manns among others in all time best MSU lists.
MATT COSTELLO – I also had big expectations of Matt Costello coming out of Bay City Western. I thought he was not only a skilled big man but also one who played with a bit of an edge. I thought he’d be a very unpopular man in opposing Big Ten gyms, which meant he’d be loved at Breslin. I thought he had a chance to start immediately at MSU in 12-13.
Illness and injury made his freshman season an inconsistent one, as he never really got on track. Then, somewhere along the way, I think he lost some of what had made him so good in HS. He never did fully get that edge back in his play, the physicality bordering on dirtiness at times. He also seemed to struggle offensively, having trouble finishing, playing with hesitation, etc. He’d show flashes, like he did against Purdue as a junior, or in Iowa City the year prior, but he couldn’t ever seem to string together a bunch of high level performances. Over the summer in Italy, it was not he but rather Gavin Schilling who was the most impressive MSU big man against pros. Matt wasn’t bad over there at all, just as he wasn’t in his junior year. He just wasn’t great.
Then it changed. I think the light switched on just a little bit prior to Big Ten play starting, but once he started to put together multiple games where he played well, it became clear a corner was turned. He was more assertive, more confident, and played with more toughness than he’d shown previously at MSU. Why that happened is something of an unknown to me…maybe it was the realization that this was it, his time was running short. Maybe he just finally got frustrated with not being everything he could be as a player and decided he was going to change that.
He finished 3rd in the Big Ten in rebounding but tops in conference games. He was second in the league in offensive boards and 5th on the defensive end, so he was very consistent in that area. He was 8th in field goal percentage at 56%, showing so much improvement in his ability to finish at the rim. He was MSU’s most consistent post defender and he was also in the top 10 in blocks. He racked up a ton of double/doubles in conference play. Maybe most memorably, he gave this team jolts of extreme enthusiasm and LIFE on the court via his play. Yeah, it could look goofy but the sense you got is that this was a kid who finally felt comfortable enough and confident enough to just be himself…to play and act exactly the way he felt. I’m going to miss watching that joy on the court.
COLBY WOLLENMAN – Everybody knows his story by now…the walk on from Big Horn, Wyoming who came to MSU not because of basketball but academics, and how he can now write his ticket to the medical school of his choice. As a player, MSU had to count on him at times more than they’d expected to. At times, that proved to be an issue in certain ways but man, a kid who had zero profile became a real PLAYER at MSU. He was out there in big moments and contributed in big ways over the last two years enough to earn respect from any sane MSU fan.
I think he’s easily been the best true walk on of Izzo’s tenure. I don’t think you count guys like Austin Thornton or Tim Bograkos in that category because they came in as preferred guys…Kenny Goins is in that camp as well. Colby was a REAL walk on, a guy promised nothing and of whom little on court performance was expected when he joined the program. Occasionally his physical limitations showed through but you couldn’t ever question the effort. In his own way, he set a standard just like the other guys in this class did.