EAST LANSING - It would be nice to talk about the first of what is expected to be many competitive meetings between former high school teammates Denzel Valentine and Anthony Clemmons when No. 18 Michigan State faces Iowa at 7:02 p.m.(ESPN2) on Thursday.
But when the former Sexton standouts meet for the first time as opponents - Valentine a freshman guard for the Spartans (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) and Clemmons, a first-year point guard for the Hawkeyes (11-4, 0-2) - staying relevant in what has already become an uber competitive Big Ten race will be at the top both team's agendas.
Both guards have already had significant influences on their respective teams despite being first timers at the D-1 level.
Valentine has started 12 games, is averaging 6.3 points and 4.3 rebounds and is second on the Spartans with 44 assists, while Clemmons has started eight games and is averaging 4.8 points and leads the Hawkeyes in assists at 4.1 a contest.
Unfortunately, the interest of their first meeting will have to take a backseat to an MSU team that needs to steal a win on the road in Iowa City to stay within shouting distance of the conference's top spot and a Hawkeye team that is desperate for its first conference victory after opening the Big Ten schedule with lossess to Indiana and Michigan.
"Really, we don't want to lose any games but yea, that's usually the idea, steal some wins here and there on the road and take care of business at home,'' said sophomore guard Travis Trice of an MSU team that will be facing a Hawkeye squad that is 9-1 this season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. "So you're just trying to win as many as possible because you don't know how the (Big Ten) race is going to work out.''
As far as the Spartans, who will return home after Thursday to prepare to host Nebraska on Sunday at Breslin Center, are concerned, getting a win at Iowa could be used as a jump off point to start gaining some momentum before a grueling stretch of four games to close out January that will include Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.
In facing an Iowa team that is steadily being rejuvenated under the guidance of third-year coach Fran McCaffery, the Spartans will be looking in the mirror in regards to a team that also depends on the talents of its younger players.
While junior and Southfield native Roy Devyn Marble leads Iowa in scoring at 15.5 points a game, a trio of freshmen are projected to be part of the Hawkeyes' starting lineup Thursday night.
Clemmons, guard Mike Gesell, and 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury make up an expected starting five that gets 27 percent of its scoring and 46 percent of its assists from its rookie trio. Gesell leads the Hawkeyes in steals at 1.5 a contest.
In kind, the Spartans who have been starting freshman guards Gary Harris and Valentine, get a combined 19.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists from their first-year performers.
McCaffery, who also refused to acknowledge the interest of Clemmons' first meeting against his old teammate by saying, 'I don't worry about him too much with that kind of stuff. I don't think it will impact him at all,' was quick to pay homage to the talents of MSU's freshmen duo of Harris and Valentine.
"He's really versatile, a big body. Maybe the best part of his game is his passing. He's a really good ball handler (and) he's kind of a mismatch nightmare,'' McCaffery said of Valentine. "He can play point forward, and go in there and play the four spot. He's really a wing, but he can score, he can drive it and (he) makes plays for his teammates.''
McCaffery had even higher praise for Harris in talking about a game that will be the two team's only regular season meeting.
"Gary Harris is a handful when he gets the ball. He's a scorer and he's going to try and score. He's going to shoot, drive, attack. He's very athletic. He's quick and powerful off the floor. We tried to recruit him,'' the Iowa coach said. "He's (been) shooting the ball extremely well (but) he was always a good shooter. (Now) he's becoming a great shooter. I think that makes him that much harder to guard.''
Despite the influence of freshmen for both teams, both squads are led by upperclassmen with Marble heading the Hawkeyes attack and junior guard Keith Appling leading MSU in scoring (14.3), assists (4.4) and steals (1.7).
Junior center Adreian Payne, who averages eight points a game, tops MSU in rebounds (7.5) and blocks (1.3).
So while McCaffery was cognizant of the influences of the freshmen for both teams, he knows the real challenges that must be met in order for the Hawkeyes, who trail the overall series 66-53, to up their overall record against MSU at home to 35 wins against just 21 defeats.
One of the major challenges will be dealing with the combo guard skills of Appling.
''He's a scoring (point guard). He's always been a scorer. His freshman year, he played off the ball quite a bit with Kalin Lucas (but) last year he took the ball exclusively. It was a little bit of an adjustment. Now he's really comfortable. He goes and gets his own when he needs to. He gets them into their stuff when he needs to. He's got a really good understanding of when to push it, when not to, so you have to be real careful with him in terms of containment.''
McCaffery is also very worried about Appling's supporting cast.
"This year (Appling has) got some weapons. Now Dawson is a four, Valentine is in the starting lineup, and Harris is the two,'' McCaffery said. "They still can go big, if they want to. When you go Nix, Payne, Dawson as your forwards, that's an imposing frontline physically. You have to be careful that they're not getting one shot after another, multiple possessions till they put it back in. All three of them are very good offensive rebounders.''
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