March 20, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - If one player had to represent the condition of the Michigan State basketball team heading into the NCAA Tournament it would be Branden Dawson - exceptional talent but usually prevented from reaching potential by self-imposed limitations.
First, a disclaimer: Had Dawson performed little more than a token role for the Spartans this season, it still would have been a tribute to modern medicine and his body's remarkable recuperative powers. Consequently, the sophomore power forward's considerable contribution to MSU's success so far almost defies explanation.
However, a little more than a year has passed since Dawson underwent surgery to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, and he won't be content if his next phase of progress doesn't get underway during his first postseason experience.
It's unrealistic to expect Dawson to be completely back to normal considering how he spent seven months away from basketball while recuperating from what used to be considered a career-ending injury. And, he'll likely only resume being a supremely athletic high-flyer during the upcoming offseason.
But he's anxious to get that process started against Valparaiso in the Spartans' opener at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday.
"I've been watching film from last year and I will say I was different then," Dawson said. "I was more explosive and the physical aspect of my game was there more. It's not hard to notice that things are different this year.
"But now I can see some changes in my body. Definitely, now is the time to start a new year."
Although Dawson's knee is structurally sound and he feels almost completely healthy, he often plays as though he's holding back on the throttle. Recent meetings with coach Tom Izzo and interactions with assistant coach Mike Garland have been geared toward Dawson becoming more spontaneous.
"(Izzo) was just saying I've been thinking too much and I just have to relax," Dawson said. "The main thing is I've got to stop thinking so much. Coach G was helping me out by sending me Bible scriptures to help me free my mind. They kind of get me motivated."
Dawson has provided occasional flashes of his former self. He was spectacular while scoring a career-high 20 points in a 78-65 win at Purdue 10 games ago. Dawson scored10 points against Michigan in the following game, but was held to single-figures, while averaging fewer than five points, in the last eight.
Since back-to-back 10- and 13-rebound performances against Ohio State and Wisconsin, Dawson has averaged 5.1 boards in the last 13 games.
Nevertheless, associate head coach Dwayne Stephens feels like Dawson, who's known as "B.J." to his teammates and coaches, is on the verge of coming out of his shell.
"Even though his knee is 100 percent, the problem is he missed a lot of time when he didn't get to work on his game," Stephens said. "Everybody's like, `What's wrong with B.J.'? There's nothing wrong with him, he just didn't get a chance to fully work out at doing some of things that he wants to do.
"But, he's getting close. When you talk to the NBA guys (knowledgeable about this type of injury), they say it takes a year to come back from it. It's been a year, and there's no doubt in my mind he could possibly have a breakout game. There's a reason we're still playing him close to 30 minutes a game because if we didn't think he could give us something, he wouldn't be in there."
Learning how to play with a high motor all the time has been an issue with Dawson since he arrived at Michigan State, but he was making progress in that area before getting hurt.
"I think some of it is mental, and I think there's a comfort level," Stephens said. "Even though he's close to 100 percent, I don't think he feels comfortable going as hard as he can go. It's always going to be in the back of his mind until he can get over that mental block.
"But I've seen him make some dunks and he does some things that show the explosiveness is there. I just think that subconsciously, he's been holding back."
If anything can draw it out of Dawson, it should be the NCAA Tournament. He watched MSU's first two games last year in Columbus from the sidelines, and he didn't make the trip to Phoenix where the Spartans lost to Louisville in the regional semifinal.
"It was definitely difficult for me sitting at home watching those guys play on TV," Dawson said. "But now that I'm getting a chance to play it's very exciting because I can help my teammates out.
"Last year people were saying, `We missed out on you,' and it was kind of hard. Now that I get to play with these guys the adrenaline just motivates me more and more."
Like Dawson, the Spartans have yet to play their best basketball of the season on a consistent basis despite their 25-8 record and No. 3 tournament seed.
For that to happen, according to Izzo, three or four players will have to perform at their peak at the same time. Dawson could be the key to a long tourney run if he becomes a complementary component to any clockwork combination that also includes Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix, Gary Harris, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine.
"I would say yes (I could be the difference) because when everyone is clicking, like myself, Gary, Keith, A.P. and Nix, we're just a way-much better team," Dawson said. "Lately, some guys have been clicking and some guys haven't."
If the whole playing group gets synced up and hits the next gear, there's no telling what the Spartans can accomplish.
"I'm definitely convinced this team hasn't played its best collective basketball," Izzo said. "I think against Michigan (at home) and in a couple games we played it on maybe one end of the court. I just think that now that Payne is playing better, and we've got Appling back on track where he's pushing the ball and doing some things there, and Harris will play well, and Nix is coming off a 17 (points) and nine (rebounds) game, I think there's potential for that.
"But we probably aren't flipping a switch and making it something completely different. We've been a team that's had to grind it out."
Dawson could be the ingredient that makes for a smooth transmission.