Jan. 21, 2012
EAST LANSING, Mich. - By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com on-line columnist
At times throughout the season Branden Dawson would be so busy fumbling around for the switch, his game would occasionally go dark.
It didn't make a lot of sense to observers of the Michigan State basketball team because even though he's a freshman, he had demonstrated uncommon athletic ability and unlimited potential right from the start with 10 points and seven rebounds in 35 minutes against North Carolina.
Then came the lulls, sometimes in multi-game stretches, when Dawson looked oddly ordinary. His minutes and contributions fluctuated all over the chart and he scored just four points in 12 minutes of MSU's 60-59 loss at Michigan on Tuesday.
In the Spartans' 83-58 victory against Purdue Saturday afternoon, "the lightbulb finally went on" for Dawson, said assistant coach Mike Garland.
Dawson came off three terrific practices to lead all scorers with 14 points, two below his career-high, on 6-for-7 shooting from the floor and lit up the Breslin Center with Shannon Brown-like star power.
"This was very big for my confidence, knowing we need all wins we can get to win the Big Ten championship," Dawson said. "I watched the tape from the Michigan game and saw that I was lax on defense. I took that into consideration and came out with a lot of energy."
Dawson reached double figures for the first time in seven Big Ten games, extended his playing time to 19 minutes and may have signaled a development that MSU's attack has been lacking as more and more teams become determined to make someone other than leading scorers Draymond Green and Keith Appling beat them.
Moreover, Dawson reminded everybody of what a high-energy player he can be with three sensational dunks in the latter stages when the Spartans could have played the score and let Purdue back into the game.
"He's very receptive to teaching, and once he understands something he takes a giant step," Garland said. "The big thing today was, he learned that he can play off Green, he can play off of Nix, he can play off of Payne and he can actually play off Keith because those defenders are helping off of him.
"When they go to help off him, it leaves an open lane for him to just cut to the basket hard, and he's such an athlete that if we go upstairs with it, there's no defense for it. He's also starting to learn that when Nix catches it in the post and his man starts to sag, to go behind his man's head, find a lane and back-cut."
If Dawson's reactions kick in with regularity, teams will have to pay more attention to him and that could open up more scoring chances for Green, who scored eight and seven points in his last two games, respectively, and Appling, who has had back-to-back 10-point performances.
"If he's involved in the offense like this, it's going to be on film that he's back-cutting and now teams have got to make a decision on whether you're going to double and triple on Green or Nix," Garland said. "Nix is doing the same thing - he's playing extremely well off of Green."
Green responded in kind with a season-high seven assists against the Boilermakers.
After scoring just two points in the first half, which came to an end with MSU holding a 31-24 lead despite Purdue's 20-12 rebounding advantage, Dawson made a long jump shot to complete the Spartans 9-2 second-half-opening run.
"Coach Izzo came in (at halftime) and said it was all about effort," Dawson said. "I was always a guy who could jump in high school, and today, (fellow freshman) Travis Trice and Draymond Green found me in the open court and I got a tip-dunk off Adreian Payne's missed shot.
"We all feed off that kind of energy and like Coach G says, that stuff all helps. It gets our team going and when the fans are into it, it helps."
Dawson said the Spartans opened up on offense in the second half because they picked up the intensity on defense and outrebounded the Boilermakers 21-14. Michigan State held Purdue to conference-opponent-low 29 percent (18 of 62) shooting from the floor.
Robbie Hummel, the standout Boilermaker senior scorer who's playing on a surgically repaired knee that caused him to miss most of the past two seasons, went 0-for-11 from the floor to finish a game without a basket for the first time in his career.
Dawson credited the extra time he's spent with Garland for getting him to the point where he can exploit defensive tendencies.
"Coach G has definitely helped me a lot by telling me that when guys play off me like that, to cut to the basket," Dawson said. "Travis Trice found me on a couple alley-oops and so did Draymond once, but unfortunately it turned into a turnover."
Dawson's biggest improvement lately has been the ability to keep up with the speed of the game.
"It's not but a split-second," Garland said. "When that ball goes, he has to be there. I think that's why we had some miscues early in the game and threw some errant passes. That thing has to be so quick so they can't get to the double-team and then recover and get back.
"I've been saying throughout the season that we're going to eventually get to the point where they're going to have to start playing us honest again, and with him doing that today, it helps. You've got to pick your poison."