East Lansing — A few weeks ago, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said his team would face adversity at some point this season.
On Sunday night, it hit hard as senior guard Denzel Valentine injured his left knee coming down from a layup in practice and will be lost for the next two to three weeks. Valentine had an arthroscopic procedure Monday morning to clean up some loose cartilage in the knee.
“He was crushed last night when we found out, actually late last night,” Izzo said Monday at his weekly news conference. “But at the same time, we’re just gonna have to learn, this will be a new challenge, a new chapter for us. We’ve got a lot of guys, we’ve talked about our depth. We’ve won games when he hasn’t played well. It’s just one of those things. This has become an opportunity for our other guys, which I think is key. We’ll see if the guys that want to step up and talked about stepping up now will step up.”
Izzo called the injury “very, very minor,” but said the decision was made after doctors met Valentine and his parents.
“We did the best for him at the present, him in the future, us in the future,” Izzo said. “And figuring us right now isn’t as critical as us in the future, as far as making a decision that was best for him.
“It’s just a bump in the road, and I think he’ll get through it fine. There’s not even a thought of any lasting effects on this, so the positive news is, as the doctor, when he called earlier this morning, said, ‘Whatever the best-case scenario for something like this is, he’s got the best-case scenario.’ ”
The benefit for Valentine and No. 1 Michigan State (12-0) is the fact it has a light schedule in terms of number of games. After Tuesday’s meeting with Oakland at The Palace, the Spartans don’t play again until opening the Big Ten season Dec. 29 at Iowa, followed by a Jan. 2 trip to Minnesota.
Valentine likely would miss those games, but Izzo is hoping to get him back for Illinois at home on Jan. 7 or at Penn State on Jan. 10.
“I think the next couple days I think we will know more,” Izzo said. “But we’re not going to rush him, either. He’s got too much ahead of him to do that. We are just going to make an educated medical decision. That won’t be made by me. I’ll just be in the room shaking my head one way or the other.”
What Michigan State does in the meantime will be the big question. Junior Eron Harris will enter the starting lineup, but it will take far more than one player to make up for Valentine’s absence.
Through the first 12 games of the season, Valentine is averaging 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists and has recorded a pair of triple-doubles while vaulting himself into the conversation for national player of the year.
“On Denzel, you’re missing more things because his versatility that’s caused the triple-doubles and all those things is what you miss,” Izzo said. “Besides that, he’s our best locker room/hotel guy. So I feel comfortable that Tum (Tum Nairn) will take over that category, and who takes over the others will be interesting to see.”
Harris won’t be the only player to see increased minutes. Freshman guard Matt McQuaid, who had spent most of his time backing up Nairn at point guard, likely will see more time at the two-guard while junior Alvin Ellis III and freshman Kyle Ahrens could end up playing significant minutes.
Izzo said he’ll also be leaning on his frontcourt to rebound better, something that should be aided as junior Gavin Schilling slowly works back from the turf toe injury that kept him out the first 11 games.
“We’re almost plugging into a multi-position guy,” Izzo said. “So you’re not gonna get a guy that’s gonna do that. Maybe we’ll get a guy that will make more shots, maybe we’ll get a guy that rebounds more. But the combination of things is gonna be a little more difficult, but I am looking forward to it.”
The Spartans don’t exactly get a break and they move forward without Valentine. Oakland (7-3) is coming off a road thrashing of Washington on Saturday and the sold-out crowd at The Palace will be seeing if the Golden Grizzlies can knock off the No. 1 team in the nation.
Coach Greg Kampe has the weapons as junior Kay Felder, who has scored at least 20 points in every game this season, had a career-high 38 in the win over Washington and Texas transfer Martez Walker scored 18 in his Oakland debut.
“(Oakland) is a team that will be better than some teams we might play in our league,” Izzo said. “I’m treating this as an NCAA team. I don’t know if that’s good or bad with one-day prep to do that, as far as getting our guys ready, but that’s the beauty of basketball, that’s what you’ve got to do and see what happens.”
Throw in the fact Michigan State will be attempting to establish a record for the best start in school history, and there will be plenty on the line.
“It’s good to have goals within the big picture,” Izzo said. “It’s good to accomplish something and try to mean something.
“But if you flip around, it’s a big thing to Oakland to stop. It works both ways and sometimes things like that become a burden on you. I have not seen that at all. I don’t think it’s a burden on them. I just think they would like to accomplish something that others of their peers haven’t accomplished.”