December 21, 2015

Denzel Valentine's emergence as one of the nation's top players is a major reason why Michigan State holds the No. 1 ranking and is on the verge of making history.

Now the Spartans will figure out how good they are without him.

A minor arthroscopic knee procedure will keep the star senior on the sidelines for two to three weeks beginning Tuesday night, when Michigan State faces surprising Oakland at the Palace of Auburn Hills looking to start 13-0 for the first time ever.

Valentine is averaging team highs of 18.5 points and 8.3 rebounds while ranking among the national leaders with 7.1 assists per game. He's posted two triple-doubles, joining Magic Johnson, Charlie Bell and Draymond Green as the only Spartans to accomplish the feat.

Michigan State boasts victories over No. 2 Kansas, No. 10 Providence and No. 16 Louisville while matching the 2000-01 team for the best start in school history. Playing just as well without Valentine's contributions could be difficult, though.

Coach Tom Izzo said Valentine was hurt landing awkwardly following a layup attempt in practice Sunday, but that the injury is "very, very minor." Valentine is expected to miss three or four games, including a trip to Iowa on Dec. 29 to begin Big Ten play.

West Virginia transfer Eron Harris will take Valentine's spot in the starting lineup.

"He was crushed last night when we found out, but at the same time, we're just going to have to learn," Izzo said. "This will be a new challenge, a new chapter for us.

"We've talked about our depth. We've won games when he hasn't played well. This will become an opportunity for our other guys."

Michigan State's approach likely will be the same. It is one of the nation's most balanced teams, assisting on 78.8 percent of its field goals to lead the nation while ranking third in average rebound differential (plus-15.3) and fifth in defensive field-goal percentage (35.3).

Bryn Forbes has increased his scoring average from 8.5 last season to 12.7 and should see more shots with Valentine out. He finished with 12 points and sparked the Spartans by diving on the floor for a loose ball in Saturday's 78-58 win at Northeastern.

''He'd have been the last guy that's gotten on the floor the last year or so,'' Izzo said. ''He's doing more things, and we needed someone to light a match.''

Kahlil Felder has been that player for Oakland (7-3), which is off to its best start since joining Division I in 1998. Felder finished with a career-high 38 points and nine assists in Saturday's impressive 97-83 victory at Washington.

It marked the second straight 30-point game for Felder, who ranks second in the nation with 25.9 points per contest. He's helped Oakland win four straight following an 86-82 loss at Georgia on Dec. 1.

The junior guard is far from one-dimensional, though. Felder leads the country in assists per game with 8.9 despite tying for second with an average of 18.1 field goals attempted.

''You can talk about what Felder did and he put us in the position (to beat Washington). We were tired and in foul trouble, so I just spread the floor and let him play one-on-one and he was unbelievable," coach Greg Kampe said. "We see that every day. We know how good he is."

Izzo does, too, but his squad held Felder to 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting in last season's 87-61 win. He's also wary of Texas transfer Martez Walker, who became eligible Saturday and scored 18 points in his Oakland debut.

"Oakland has turned into a very big game," Izzo said. "They went out and demolished Washington. Excellent offensive team."

Michigan State has won all 13 meetings since Oakland entered Division I.

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