'I'm young and dumb, I believe in myself': Valentine ready for challenge of leading Loyola

No question, it will be a huge, emotional game when Loyola, with first-year coach Drew Valentine, takes on Michigan State on Wednesday in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas (11 a.m., ESPN).

Valentine grew up in Lansing, Michigan, his father Carlton and brother Denzel played for the Spartans, and Drew spent two years there as a graduate assistant.

But nothing will ever compare to Oakland vs. Michigan State at the Breslin Center on Nov. 23, 2012. That was the Battle 4 Brotherly Love, Drew vs. Denzel for the first and only time.

"You talk about hard. That was my least favorite game I ever played in," Drew said. "Because he's a freshman, it was like his first start. I had just tore my knee up two days before. I was on a charter plane coming back from Houston, and I tried to stand up getting off the plane and could barely straighten my knee.

"And I had to decide whether to play against my brother in that game, most anticipated game, we had like 50 family members come to that, had special shirts made. Whether to play in that game or redshirt my senior year and come back another year. I was like, 'Screw it, I'm just going to play.' "

Valentine not only took the floor on a bum knee, he played all 40 minutes in a 70-52 MSU win. Denzel finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists, flashing some of the form that would lead him to becoming the Bulls' first-round draft pick four years later. Denzel now plays for the Cavaliers.

"So I had like a bum knee and could barely move, and he was worried like. 'Are you OK, are you healthy?' " Drew said. "And I'm like, 'Man, I want you to have a great game because I want your career to take off.' That was probably like the toughest."

That sentiment is commendable, since some brothers would go out and commit flagrant fouls in the same situation.

"That ain't it," Valentine said. "We were out there like sad. My mom literally during the second half had to go into the bathroom and was crying, because she felt she was being disloyal by cheering for one or the other.

"I had to coach against Bryan Mullins at Southern Illinois, that stinks every single time, playing against a close friend. We coached here (at Loyola) together for two years. Mullins is actually a guy I think told Porter (Moser) to hire me."

Valentine arrived at Loyola as an assistant coach four years ago, the same year the Ramblers went to the Final Four. After a trip to the Sweet 16 last spring, it seemed inevitable Moser would move on, and when he accepted a spot at Oklahoma, Loyola wasted no time making Valentine a head coach at age 30.

If the school had that much faith in him, Valentine wasn't about to doubt his readiness for the challenge.

"I'm young and dumb, I believe in myself," he said. "I was the guy when I was at Michigan State that would be in the back video room working, making zero money, working 12-16 hour days for Tom Izzo, helping guys get better, helping that staff prepare.

"I was that guy that was keeping a journal, keeping tabs on like, 'Man, when I'm a head coach I'm going to do it this way. When I'm a head coach I'm going to do it that way.' I'd be back there with the managers and I'd be like, 'Yo, when I'm a head coach, you want to be my video guy?' I've always been that guy."

He's also faced greater challenges just in the past few months. Since the spring, Valentine's wife, Taylor, got COVID at the NCAA Tournament, he got the head coaching job at Loyola, then the couple's daughter Hayden was born at 28 weeks and weighed just 2 pounds. She pulled through and is doing well.

"We thought she might have to get another surgery and found out she didn't have to get it just last week," Valentine said. "Me and my wife, it was very emotional for us because she had three surgeries on her head so far in a short seven months being alive. It's unbelievable where she's come and grown, and it's such a blessing when I wake up between 4-5 a.m. every day to feed her, I'm good."

So playing against Izzo and MSU in the Bahamas should be fun, especially for a Loyola squad off to a 4-0 start and wanting to keep the high expectations alive.

"I think we've established Loyola to the point where people come in here to play us or when people see us on the schedule, they circle the game," he said. "It's like a Super Bowl for them. But how we prepare for Wisconsin-Stout in our exhibition game is going to exactly the same for how we prepare for Michigan State.

"I think that kind of helps our team be consistent and create that culture of preparation. With all that being said, that game's hard not to circle on my calendar, on my family's calendar, just because coach Izzo and the university itself has meant so much to us. It's going to be really fun."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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