Tom Izzo praises Denzel Valentine as the most unique player he's ever coached because of an all-around skill set that's enhanced by his leadership qualities.
It's no wonder Michigan State has looked pedestrian through two close calls and been outmatched in a road loss during Valentine's absence.
The fifth-ranked Spartans play their fourth straight game - and possibly their last - without the senior standout Thursday night when they face an Illinois team that has won its last two trips to the Breslin Center.
Michigan State (14-1, 1-1 Big Ten) surged to the No. 1 ranking with the best start in school history behind Valentine's averages of 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists. He hasn't played since a win at Northeastern on Dec. 19, though, and his teammates haven't been as sharp over the last three games following his minor knee surgery.
The Spartans needed overtime to beat Horizon League foe Oakland on Dec. 22, and a week later they trailed by double digits throughout the second half of an 83-70 loss to an Iowa team that has risen to the No. 19 ranking. Michigan State dropped out of the top spot after a school-record, four-week run following a tough 69-61 win at sub-.500 Minnesota on Saturday.
Izzo's team is averaging 14.7 assists without Valentine after previously leading the nation with 22.6 per game.
Bryn Forbes had a career-high 32 points against Oakland and 20 against the Golden Gophers, but he finished with three against the Hawkeyes. Eron Harris has averaged 19.3 points starting in place of Valentine after scoring 7.0 per game through the first 12.
"It's a struggle for us at times right now," Izzo said. "(Not having) our go-to guy to go to on the perimeter especially has been a little bit of a problem. But it's good to be back home."
Michigan State hasn't played in East Lansing since beating Florida on Dec. 12.
Valentine has gone through non-contact drills in practice but hasn't been cleared to play. He hopes to return Sunday at Penn State, and Izzo said the worst-case scenario would be for Valentine to come back against the Hawkeyes on Jan. 14.
Still, the Spartans are held to certain expectations even without their best player. It's a far different feeling than when they were a longshot to reach the Final Four last season but accomplished the feat as a No. 7 seed.
"To hell with being the underdog. I don't mind the pressure anymore, I actually like it," Izzo said. "I actually think it is a compliment and I think our program and our fans and everybody else has to learn to deal with it."
The Fighting Illini (8-7, 0-2) have embraced the underdog role in their last two visits to the Breslin Center, winning 53-46 on March 1, 2014, and 59-54 on Feb. 7. They'll likely have to play much better than they have recently to win there again.
Michael Finke, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn scored 14 points apiece Sunday for the Illini, who entered tied for 10th in the country in free throws allowed per game with 14.9. The Buckeyes went 28 of 39 from the line, while Illinois finished 9 of 11.
"That was the difference in the game," coach John Groce said. ''We've got to play a lot harder without fouling."
Michigan State held Illinois to 28.8 percent from the field while winning the most recent meeting 60-53 on Feb. 22 behind 20 points from Valentine.
Hill averaged 18.0 points in last season's two meetings and is at 17.9 this season but has shot 7 for 24 in his last two games.