January 01, 2016

Denzel Valentine may be strengthening his case as college basketball's best player without even taking the floor.

Reeling from the star guard's knee injury and its first loss of the season, top-ranked Michigan State tries to regain its earlier form in Saturday's visit to struggling Minnesota.

With the versatile Valentine excelling in all facets, the Spartans (13-1, 0-1 Big Ten) were arguably the nation's most complete team in winning their first 12 games by an average margin of 22.8 points. That dominance hasn't existed, however, in the two games the invaluable senior has missed after undergoing arthroscopic surgery Dec. 21.

After being pushed to the limit by underdog Oakland in a 99-93 overtime win a day after Valentine's procedure, Michigan State put forth a sluggish effort in an 83-70 loss at Iowa in Tuesday's Big Ten opener.

Coaching one night following the death of his 90-year-old father, Carl, Tom Izzo watched his team trail throughout and allow the Hawkeyes to shoot 48.2 percent, the highest mark by a Spartans opponent this season.

''My dad was kind of a two-job, blue-collar immigrant that worked his posterior off most of his life, and that's what I asked of my team," Izzo said. "`Don't honor him with a win. Honor him by how we play.' That's been the most disappointing of all the things that've happened in the last two days.''

Valentine, Michigan State's leader in scoring, rebounding and assists, will miss at least one more game. The Spartans haven't lost much offensively with Eron Harris totaling 48 points starting in his place, but they have experienced a defensive drop-off. Michigan State limited opponents to 56.9 points per game and 35.3 percent shooting with Valentine in the lineup.

"Offense isn't gonna always be there, but we gotta rebound always, we gotta be hustling, we gotta do a better job picking each other up," Harris said.

The Spartans should fare better in a matchup with Minnesota (6-7, 0-1), the Big Ten's worst shooting team at 41.2 percent. The Gophers have been held under 39 percent five times during a 1-5 stretch that includes home losses to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Milwaukee.

Minnesota was inefficient again in Wednesday's 78-63 defeat at Ohio State, hitting 36.2 percent.

The Gophers showed more resolve in a 96-90 overtime win at Michigan State on Feb. 26. They overcame Valentine's 27 points to snap a 15-game skid in East Lansing, with Carlos Morris scoring 20 and hitting a game-tying 3 with 2.2 seconds left in regulation.

Morris, averaging 18.7 points over his last three, and Joey King (13.2 points per game) are the top perimeter threats on a team whose success has been predicated on its ability to knock down outside shots. Minnesota is 5-1 when making seven or more 3-pointers and 1-6 when under that total.

Reaching that number will be a challenge, as Michigan State ranks 10th nationally in 3-point percentage defense (27.5).

Keeping Jordan Murphy on the floor could also be a key for Minnesota. Foul trouble limited the freshman to 22 minutes Wednesday, and he finished with 11 points and five rebounds. He had five double-doubles in the previous six games, averaging 14.7 points and 12.2 boards but fouling out twice.

''He can't get in foul trouble," coach Richard Pitino said. "He's got to learn from it.''

The Spartans are making their first trip to Williams Arena since a 76-63 loss to a ninth-ranked Gophers team Dec. 31, 2012. Michigan State had won five straight in Minneapolis prior to that outcome and is 19-4 in the last 23 meetings overall.

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