March 21, 2013 at 4:09 pm

John Niyo

If Glenn Robinson, Branden Dawson step up, watch out for MSU, U-M

Michigan State and Michigan practice in front of f...
Michigan State and Michigan practice in front of f...: Both teams prepare to play Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Auburn Hills -- John Beilein doesn't need the statistics to tell him what he already knows.

But, yes, the coach says with a wry smile, when reminded that his Michigan team is 17-1 when freshman Glenn Robinson III scores in double figures. "I'm aware of that stat."

And yes, Tom Izzo's aware of a similar one involving his team, a Michigan State squad that is 13-2 when sophomore Branden Dawson hits double digits.

Before the season, Izzo called Dawson, who was coming off a torn ACL suffered last March, his team's "X-factor." And now, as Michigan State gets ready to tip off against Valparaiso in the NCAA Tournament today at The Palace, that's still the case.

"I think we're a pretty good team — and maybe a great team — if we get more than two guys to play well at the same time," Izzo said.

Beilein certainly could say the same, as he, too, searches for a third wheel that can help carry the Wolverines on a lengthy tournament run. But he won't, at least not publicly.

"I don't want put it, 'This guy has to play well for us to advance,'" Beilein said. "I mean, this is big-boy basketball right now. The whole team has got to play well. That's it. If you don't, if you have a bad day, you're probably out."

Robinson must score

True enough. And there are other options for both teams, inside and out, from Derrick Nix to Travis Trice and Mitch McGary to Nik Stauskas. But the two best athletes on either roster might be the biggest wild cards as the Spartans and Wolverines get started in their backyard.

Robinson's a dynamic talent who proved surprisingly efficient and productive early in his freshman season, averaging 12 points and six rebounds as the Wolverines went undefeated in nonconference play.

The numbers have fallen off since then — particularly against the Big Ten's better teams — but Robinson remains a bellwether of sorts for his team. Since the start of the conference season, the Wolverines are 9-1 when Robinson scores 10 or more. They're 4-6 when he doesn't.

Simply put, "We're better when he's scoring," Beilein says.

But they're also better — and so is Robinson — when Michigan is defending.

Because at this stage of his development, the 6-foot-6 forward doesn't really get going — "That's something I've got to work at, is going at that fifth gear the whole time," he admits — until the Wolverines start getting stops.

"When we stop people, he gets on the fastbreak and he scores buckets — a lot of them," Beilein said. "So the key to all this may be defense."

Actually, the key might be the opponents — a South Dakota State team that doesn't defend well, and perhaps a Virginia Commonwealth team Saturday that'll push the pace from start to finish.

Dawson has to get going

Michigan State's draw offers more freedom as well.

But can Dawson be the key?

"I'll say yes," said the sophomore, who's well aware just how important that'd be. "Because this team, when everyone is clicking, we're a much better team. Lately, some guys haven't been clicking."

Dawson is one of those guys, obviously. Michigan State was 7-1 in the Big Ten when Dawson scored 10 or more. But that's something he hasn't done in more than a month, since the big win over Michigan at the Breslin Center in mid-February.

Part of the problem has been his knee injury, which cost him a crucial summer of growth and still keeps him from doing all the things he'd like to. Watch him attacking the basket in the lane and you'll see he's still not comfortable finishing, especially when he's pivoting or spinning. Watch him shoot from the perimeter and, well, you'll see why his coaches are more comfortable with him finding other ways to get his points.

"To me, he's starting to get a better understanding of how to score, how to put himself in position to score," said assistant Mike Garland, who has worked extensively with Dawson this season.

"It's just an awareness of what he needs to do."

And much like Robinson, what he needs to do has little to do with jump shots. Garland likes to point to Victor Oladipo, Indiana's All-American guard, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a fellow 2011 McDonald's All-American who won a national title with Kentucky last spring, as examples to follow.

"Those guys, they score 15-16 points a game and they never really take shots," Garland said. "It's all high-energy stuff."

It's that kind of stuff that's needed most right now. Stats aside, everybody should be aware of that.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III, at practice Wednesday, averaged 10.7 points this season, but in the team’s seven losses, that fell to 6.6. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III, at practice Wednesday, averaged 10.7 points ... (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)