Weaving his way through the defense, Denzel Valentine spotted his teammate open in the corner on the opposite side of the court — yet, that wasn’t where he passed the ball.
Instead, he made a routine delivery to a teammate stationed near the top of the key, who swung the ball to the open player in the corner.
Pass, pass, shot, score, fist pump.
The pattern repeated itself over and over.
No, this wasn’t in the No. 13 MSU men’s basketball team’s (18-4 overall, 7-2 Big Ten) 80-75 victory over Illinois on Thursday, in which Valentine produced arguably the best game of his young career, netting a career-high 14 points.
It was in a Jan. 29 practice two days earlier.
It was one of the first glimpses of a possible breakthrough on the horizon for a first-year player who joined the starting lineup four games into his collegiate career, but recently was moved to the bench, relegated to talk of running into a so-called freshman wall.
“I’ve been having good practices the last week and a half; I just didn’t transfer it to the game,” Valentine said. “I was putting pressure on myself. I just took the pressure off and just went in there and played.”
“Pressure” has been a word regularly discussed in regard to Valentine since he decided to follow in the path of his father, playing basketball just seven miles from the high school where his father coached him to two state titles.
But as he sat at his locker Thursday night, Valentine said the nerves came from a different source.
“I was just getting down on myself too much, feeling sorry for myself,” Valentine said. “I need to just let that stuff go and listen to what (the coaches) say, not how they say it, and just play.”
In search of a way to break through, Tom Izzo reached out to the last man to coach his freshman to success — Valentine’s father, Carlton Valentine.
“I asked his dad to come over the other day just to talk and see how we can help him because he’s been struggling,” Izzo said. “That was Valentine’s best game, and I’m going to give his dad some credit.”
Denzel Valentine admitted there was nothing his father said that MSU’s coaches hadn’t said countless times before.
Yet, this time the message clicked: bad plays will happen, but successful players don’t let them linger into the next.
“I did play better, but I’m really (critical) of myself,” he said. “I didn’t make all the right plays and … I’m not going to just pat myself on the back. You can always get better. Everybody can always get better. I took a step up, but I still can get a lot better.”