Three years ago, Drew and Denzel Valentine celebrated together as Michigan State earned a surprise trip to the Final Four. With Denzel now taking center-stage with the Chicago Bulls at the United Center, Drew is going on another wild run through the NCAA Tournament with a team based just nine miles north.
The older Valentine and the Loyola Ramblers have taken the nation by storm and he can feel the support. “The vibe has been crazy, everyone has been showing us a lot of love. It’s been awesome to get that experience,” Valentine said.
Before joining Loyola, Valentine coached at Oakland University for two seasons. But before that, he spent two seasons under Tom Izzo as a graduate manager. The Spartans reached the Final Four in the 2015, his final year with the team. That makes Valentine the only member of the Loyola staff with any Final Four experience.
Valentine said he’s been able to corroborate what Loyola head coach Porter Moser has heard from other coaches around the country. He’s also been in contact with Izzo.
“He’s really just been congratulatory,” Valentine said. “He’s definitely pulling for us, rooting us on. He’s giving us advice about how to handle the final four experience. One thing that he said, ‘I’m telling you, you got to be done with your tickets by Monday. Make a cut off date,’” Valentine said Izzo told him.
That part has held true, the assistant coach said. Old acquaintances that he hasn’t seen in 10 years have asked Valentine for tickets, the more experienced coaches have dealt with even more ticket requests.
For Valentine, much of that support has come from mid-Michigan. Like his brother, Valentine was a standout at J.W. Sexton in Lansing before making a splash with Michigan State. Despite being more than 230 miles from their arena in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago, East Lansing fans have rallied behind Valentine and Loyola.
“It’s been good to get some of the hometown people pulling for us and wishing us well. It’s been awesome,” Valentine said. “I’m just thankful for everyone.”
Loyola entered the tournament as an 11-seed and is as true a Cinderella-story as any in tournament history. With the Blackhawks and Bulls struggling and the city’s baseball teams just barely getting started, the Ramblers are the biggest story in Chicago.
In some families, that could cause some friction – Drew’s mid-major Loyola has taken the spotlight from Denzel’s Bulls. But the Valentine brothers are as tight as ever.
“[Denzel’s] excited for me, he’s excited for our players,” Drew said. “He’s spent some time over here coming to games, coming to practices.” Valentine also said he watches the Bulls every chance he gets, and the two talk after almost every game.
Denzel was drafted by the Bulls in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft. Drew said when the opportunity arose in 2017 for him to move to Chicago, his entire family was excited. Now they are all rallying behind Drew and Loyola as they take on a common foe.
Valentine said the team has used his familiarity with Michigan in practice. While it’s been a few years since he directly scouted Michigan, Valentine said he’s still familiar with John Beilein’s terminology and is helping to put his players in the right positions.
“Coach Beilein is a fantastic coach, he makes adjustments game to game. So it’s not like me being a scout three years ago is going to make a difference. But it’s how you can defend certain things, certain actions they might run,” Valentine said.
The Ramblers are getting into San Antonio early to get settled before Saturday’s game. Valentine said he’s trying to soak it all in and enjoy the experience. But it may be Loyola that is bringing the best part of the Final Four along with them – Sister Jean. The 98-year-old nun and team chaplain has become the most popular person in all of college basketball.
“What an incredible ambassador for your program,” Valentine said of Sister Jean. “To have someone that’s 98 who has experienced so much and is still so sharp. The best part about her is it’s not like all of a sudden she’s coming around. When I came here on my interview I met her. What you see is what you get with her.”
Sister Jean, Valentine and the rest of the Loyola program have a chance to make history this weekend. And they can expect to have just about all of Spartan Nation in their corner.