It's hard to describe how awesome Travis Trice was on Sunday against Virginia. He scored in transition, knocked down three-pointers, and hit clutch shots to rescue what would otherwise be ugly possessions. When the dust settled, Trice had scored 23 points against an extremely tough defense and Michigan State had beaten Virginia to earn a Sweet 16 berth.
All that is great, but it doesn't mean that Trice will be the Spartans' most important player when they battle for hardwood supremacy against No. 3 seed Oklahoma on Friday night in Syracuse.
That's the good thing about Michigan State, though. Their best player isn't the same guy in every game. Sometimes they need the leadership and point guard skills that only Trice can provide. Sometimes they need the rebounding and defense of Branden Dawson. This week, it will be Denzel Valentine's time to shine.
The junior small forward was held to just one field goal by Virginia, but he's been a very efficient scorer all season long. Valentine can hit both two- and three-point shots at a better rate than Trice and help out in the distribution game as well. He can also guard a larger variety of opposing players. All those skills will come into play when the Sooners and their star swingman Buddy Hield take the floor.
With 17.3 points and 5.4 rebounds accounted for per game, Hield is one of the Big 12's most valuable players as well as one of the highest volume shooters in the country. He can score from inside as well as outside, and Oklahoma will be counting on him to light up the scoreboard in a game that has the Sooners as surprising two-point underdogs.
I'm pretty sure head coach Lon Kruger is going to remind his team that it didn't survive the nation's toughest conference with 12-6 record to to be knocked out by a No. 7 seed in the Sweet 16. Oklahoma will be motivated, and it will be up to Valentine to slow down its top player.
He shouldn't be alone, though. Valentine may be Michigan State's most versatile defender, but Tom Izzo should mix up his coverage of Hield to include Tum Tum Nairn on the perimeter and Branden Dawson on the inside. There's no reason to tire out Valentine when he is going to be needed when it comes to putting points on the board.
The Sooners play a balanced defensive style that doesn't have a strong strength or weakness. Like Virginia, they are able to pressure shooters without fouling too much. Michigan State will have to be patient and explore all avenues if they hope to run an efficient offense. Unlike last time out, a quick opening burst may not be able to hold off Oklahoma for the entire game.
On the other hand, Dayton was able to hurt the Sooners from long range on Sunday, and the Flyers nearly took Oklahoma down in an upset. Valentine needs to be more active on offense as well as defense in Friday's game to give the Spartans a chance to move on. His mix of point forward and shooting skills will be key to making the Michigan State offense run more smoothly than it did last round.
We know Hield will be there to make sure the Sooners don't shoot 2-for-17 from three-point range like Virginia did.