By Seth Gruen--
(CBS) I remember covering Michigan State star Denzel Valentine in the 2014 NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden. That year, Valentine and the Spartans were the sexy pick to win the national championship after an injury-riddled regular season.
It was a loaded team with future NBA Draft picks Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Gary Harris and undrafted Keith Appling, who currently plays in the D-League. The fifth starter was Valentine, then a sophomore.
I had seen him before but remember looking at the then doughy Valentine warming up on the floor and thinking: This guy is a starter on a national championship contender? (Michigan State lost to eventual national champion UConn in the Elite Eight.) And when every other starter is gone in two years, this is the guy who will be the Spartans' best player?
Valentine only averaged 8.0 that season, and classmate Harris was far more advanced and drafted in the first round later that year.
Here we are two years later, and Valentine may have leapfrogged each of his former aforementioned teammates. Valentine's the best player on the team I am picking, as of now, to win the national championship in a murky field. And having been re-educated on all the clichés about appearances and book covers, I believe Valentine should win this season's Wooden Award.
Yes, Oklahoma's Buddy Hield is having an outstanding season, but all he does is score.
Valentine affects every facet of the game in a way college basketball hasn't seen for some time, averaging 19.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. This season, Valentine became the first Big Ten player in the last 20 years to have at least 20 points and 10 assists in three straight games when he did so earlier in February.
Still, there seems to be remnants of the same bias I had two years ago that's preventing people from designating Valentine the runaway favorite to win the Wooden Award. He will never look like Adonis, though he does have some deceptive athletic ability.
There really hasn't been a do-it-all player like Valentine who doesn't having gasping athleticism in some time, but he's crafty. He finds a way to score and generate offense yet also plays bigger than his 6-foot-5 frame may otherwise indicate, a trademark of Michigan State players that broadcasters need not mention 85 times per Spartans game.
Really, there's no player more important to his team or its chances than Valentine. If Valentine's hurt, the Spartans may not make it out of the first weekend of the tournament, which is why I carefully picked them to win it all. If Valentine stays healthy, I'll stand by the pick.
I can't remember a more worthy candidate for the Wooden Award, at least as his play is concerned. True basketball fans starve for a guy who isn't scoring-obsessed and doesn't disappear in parts of the game. That's Valentine.
So forget about what Valentine looks like in warmups. I have. Just pay attention to what he's doing on the court.
Big Ten power rankings
1. Michigan State (23-5, 10-5) -- The Spartans should stay here, barring a Valentine injury.
2. Maryland (23-5, 11-4) -- Some of the Terrapins' losses are shocking.
3. Indiana (23-6, 13-3) -- Yogi Ferrell: Check him out.
4. Iowa (20-7, 11-4) -- The Hawkeyes are the most perplexing team in the country.
5. Purdue (21-7, 9-6) -- The Boilermakers made it a game at Indiana.
6. Wisconsin (18-10, 10-5) -- Bravo, Greg Gard.
7. Michigan (20-9, 10-6) -- Caris LeVert is hurt again.
8. Ohio State (18-1, 10-6) -- One more win, and I believe the Buckeyes are in -- though they may be already.
I'm going to stop ranking now because nobody cares where the rest fall (hopefully that's all right with the editors). Rutgers stinks, Minnesota is just a little less bad, Illinois is an embarrassment, Northwestern has disappointed, Nebraska hasn't won back-to-back games in a month and Penn State will look worse when it gets clobbered by Michigan State on Sunday.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.
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