Just two weeks ago, Michigan State was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country with an outstanding resume that includes wins over current No. 1 team Kansas, Louisville, Providence and Florida.

However, since the Spartans announced that star forward Denzel Valentine would miss two to three weeks due to arthroscopic knee surgery, MSU has won an overtime game against Oakland, lost its first game of the season in a rout at Iowa and won a squeaker at 6-9 Minnesota.

Michigan State is going to be fine, as Valentine should be back soon. But this three-game streak has shown just how important he is to the Spartans. Without him, MSU is just okay. With him, coach Tom Izzo has a National Championship contender.

Stat Without Valentine With Valentine
eFG% 52% 56%
PPP 1.11 1.18
Opponent PPP 1.11 0.85
PPP Plus/Minus 0 0.33

With Valentine, Michigan State is shooting better, and the Spartans are scoring a little better. However, their defense has suffered the most in his absence.

With Valentine, the Michigan State defense was giving up an average of 0.85 points per possession, best the country. Without him, the Spartans surrender 1.11 points per possession, which would rank 317th nationally. That difference of 0.26 points per possession is worth nearly 18 points over the course of an average MSU game of 67.9 possessions.

Take the game against Iowa. The Hawkeyes shot almost exactly their season average, but they were able to drive the lane and get easy shots without Valentine on he floor. Almost all of Iowa’s shots were near the rim. From Shot Analytics:

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 12.22.34 AM

MSU couldn’t do anything to stop Iowa from getting to the hoop. So the Hawkeyes either made the shot or got to the line. In fact, they got to the line double the amount of a typical MSU opponent this season.

Valentine changes the dynamic for both teams when he’s on the floor. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he is big enough yet athletic enough to guard wings and forward who can drive, just like the kind of player that Iowa has. And still, maybe there is more to Valentine’s absence for the Spartans, as Tom Izzo questioned the effort of his team in their lone loss of the year.

“One of the rare times in my career we got, for a better choice of words, punked,” Izzo said. “We got outphysicaled, we got outhustled, they got every loose ball.”


MSU’s offense has changed, too, and not for the better, since Valentine left, too.

Valentine is the second-ranked player in the KenPom national player of the year rankings, and it’s easy to see why, as he’s one of the best in the country in almost every statistical category.

Metric Stat Rank Percentile
Offensive Rating 124.9 107 95th
eFG% 56.9% 222 82nd
Usage Rate 29.2% 59 97th
Defensive Rebound Percentage 24.4% 62 97th
Assist Rate 46% 3 99th

While he’s a great shooter, Valentine’s most underrated asset is that he’s one of the best in the country at distributing the ball, ranking third nationally in assist rate. With Valentine, MSU gets assists on 78 percent of its baskets, which ranks first in the nation. It’s a fun brand of basketball, and the Spartans are so good at it, they can do things like this:

But without Valentine, the Spartans are playing isolation ball, getting assists on just 54 percent of their baskets, ranking 138th nationally.

Valentine’s driving ability and the constant attention he attracts help the Spartans get open — and good — shots, either behind the three-point line or at the basket. However, without Valentine, MSU is having to settle for mid-range shots, according to Shot Analytics.

Shot Type Without Valentine With Valentine
Mid-Range 42% 27%
Three-Pointers 25% 36%
At the Rim 34% 36%

Valentine’s shot chart shows that he’s essentially eliminated bad mid-range shots, focusing solely on threes and getting to the rim.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 8.26.27 AM

There have been some bright spots for MSU in Valentine’s absence. Bryn Forbes has remained a solid three-point threat, while Eron Harris’ shooting percentage has gone up as he’s had to take far more shots. Perhaps those developments will help the Spartans down the road when they need someone besides Valentine to step up.

That said, Valentine’s skill set is unique, and there’s nobody else in the country — much less on this team — who can do what he does.

This version of Michigan State is somewhat lost. The Spartans aren’t aggressive and suffocating on defense, and they’re settling for bad shots because they can’t get open the way they could if Valentine was attracting attention and distributing the ball.

Hopefully Valentine comes back soon, because with him, MSU is extraordinarily fun to watch. And if he’s at full strength, the Spartans are absolutely a national title contender.

About Kevin Trahan

Kevin mostly covers college football and college basketball, with an emphasis on NCAA issues and other legal issues in sports. He is also an incoming law student. He's written for SB Nation, USA Today, VICE Sports, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, among others. He is a graduate of Northwestern University.