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Without Denzel Valentine, Spartans' defense struggles in win at Minnesota

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Costello's double-doubles leads Spartans past Golden Gophers (1:08)

Matt Costello records 17 points and 15 rebounds in Michigan State's 69-61 win over Minnesota. (1:08)

Here’s an instant analysis of No. 1 Michigan State’s 69-61 victory at Minnesota, the third consecutive game the Spartans have played without star Denzel Valentine, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee before Christmas.

Michigan State’s disorganized defense without Valentine: It’s easy to look at Valentine’s monstrous numbers -- 18.5 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game, 7.1 assists per game, 1.0 steals per game, 40 percent from the 3-point line, 85 percent from the free throw line -- and focus on the impact his absence has had on Michigan State’s offense. But his defensive presence is just as important. Maybe more important.

Louisville recorded 1.03 points per possession against Michigan State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Michigan State’s next four opponents all registered less than one point per possession. Then Valentine was sidelined by the procedure on his knee. In Michigan State’s next two games -- against Oakland and at Iowa -- it surrendered 1.13 PPP and 1.17 PPP, respectively.

In the first half on Saturday, Minnesota started at a 7-for-24 clip. But the Gophers grabbed 12 of their first 26 available offensive rebounds. They were hustling for loose balls and they were aggressive. And the Spartans struggled with that squad and its tenacity until the final buzzer before halftime -- a buzzer that Kevin Dorsey beat with a 3-pointer after the Gophers set up a play with 0.7 seconds on the clock.

Tom Izzo, who said the Spartans got "punked" in their Big Ten-opening loss at Iowa on Tuesday, was furious after that breakdown. Michigan State held a 32-29 lead at the break.

Minnesota's Jordan Murphy hit jump shots and scored in the post with ease during a fascinating 10-minute period. He’s a freshman. A talented freshman. But the Spartans couldn’t adjust when the 6-foot-6 forward got hot. Izzo would have put Valentine on him. And that would have changed things.

The Spartans didn’t get punked Saturday, but a Minnesota team that lost to South Dakota, South Dakota State and UW-Milwaukee should not have entered halftime with a three-point deficit against the No. 1 team in America, albeit one missing its Wooden Award candidate.

The defensive footprint of this Michigan State program is much different without Valentine. Minnesota is not a good team, but the Gophers had enough offense to hang with the Spartans deep into the second half.

Michigan State called a timeout after Nate Mason connected on a 3-pointer with 4:41 to play, cutting the Spartans’ lead to 58-56. Bryn Forbes, however, hit a crucial 3-pointer on Michigan State’s next possession and opened the game back up.

Valentine will be back -- soon: And the Spartans need him. Valentine told ESPN.com Saturday that he expects to return next week. If that stands, he will return in time for the team’s matchup at Penn State on Jan. 10 and long before a home matchup against No. 4 Maryland on Jan. 23.

Valentine said he is working out and close to a comeback.

Somehow he has made a stronger case for Wooden Award consideration while missing games. It’s clear that Michigan State achieved a No. 1 ranking because the Spartans are probably led by the best player in the country not named Ben Simmons.

What is this squad without Valentine and why that matters: You can’t ignore this stretch, though. There will be times in Big Ten play and beyond when Valentine might struggle. Maybe he’ll encounter early foul trouble. In those situations, the team that just lost to Iowa and wrestled with Minnesota is the same squad that Izzo will need to carry the load against good Big Ten teams.

Can this group do that without Valentine? That’s not clear yet. But it’s a valid question for a squad that just doesn’t move the ball with the same fluidity or defend as well without its star.

But the Spartans have veterans. And that’s important. Matt Costello (15 points, 14 rebounds) and Forbes (20 points) led the way Saturday. Deyonta Davis played well down the stretch. He did a great job in the final two minutes against the zone when he scored a key bucket after securing a spot in the midpost and made a great pass that forced Minnesota to adjust its zone and leave Davis in a one-on-one scenario inside.

Right now MSU is just trying to survive until Valentine returns. Experience helped the Spartans get the win on Saturday.

Valentine’s injury could affect history: Valentine (and Costello) must win 32 games to leave MSU as the school’s all-time winningest senior class. The Spartans won their 14th game on Saturday and have 16 more in the regular season. So his return date, and health, could all affect that possibility.

Murphy gives Minnesota hope: The freshman forward scored 10 points in the first 10 minutes of the game. If he continues to grow, he’ll evolve into a player who can anchor the squad.