Auburn Hills — Anyone who looks at the box score won't necessarily lock onto Branden Dawson.
In Michigan State's 65-54 victory over Valparaiso on Thursday in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament, Dawson had a solid game. He scored seven points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out three assists.
But that hardly tells the story. For the sophomore who has spent the entire season dealing with the ups and downs of fighting back from a torn ACL in his left knee, the energy he played with at The Palace of Auburn Hills was what made the biggest difference.
"Yeah, I was more excited this being my first opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament," Dawson said. "I was fired up. Coach talked about me just giving us a chance. I was more pumped up because I was ready to play."
Bringing that energy every night has been an issue this season for the 6-foot-6 guard.
On nights when the energy is there, he seems unstoppable, like when he scored 20 points at Purdue. When it's absent, Dawson's game is exactly that — absent.
That was hardly the case against the Crusaders.
"Branden Dawson is one of the biggest keys because he has a ceiling that he has not touched yet," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Some other guys have done it, but Branden hasn't been there yet. It's the little spin move and things like that, but it showed me his balance is coming back, and that is something he has really struggled with. He went up and got a couple of rebounds, made some great passes and had three assists and no turnovers. I just thought he felt more comfortable. He had as much energy as anybody in those huddles and I really enjoyed that."
Not only did Dawson bring it on the offensive end, he was once again the defensive stopper he was late in his freshman season before suffering the knee injury.
He and Adreian Payne teamed to stymie Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso's leading scorer. Broekhoff was 2 for 11 from the field and finished with eight points, almost nine points off his season average.
"He's a big, versatile guy," Dawson said. "I'd say me and Adreian Payne played solid and coach just kept telling us to stay solid and don't gamble."
Dawson's performance was not lost on his teammates.
"Coach gives myself and Gary (Harris) a lot of credit for being two of the better defensive players on the team," guard Keith Appling said, "but I think Branden is just as good as we are when he wants to be. He did a great job on Broekhoff. Every time he was able to score it was off one of our mistakes. I felt he did a pretty good job of trailing him and contesting his shots."
Late in the first half, Appling went up to grab a lob pass and came down awkwardly on his left knee. He limped noticeably the next few possessions and came out of the game for a few minutes.
Appling returned late in the half and played most of the second despite being slowed by the injury. He brushed off any concern after the game.
"I tweaked it when I came down on the lob," Appling said. "I don't think it's anything too serious."
Izzo admitted he was at least a little concerned and said Appling would continue to receive treatment.
"They say it's tendinitis, so it's nothing else," Izzo said. "But he was sore and he did not look the same in the second half. But after the game he said he'd be OK."
There was a light moment in the postgame news conference when Appling and Derrick Nix were asked if the game reminded them of their days playing at Detroit Pershing. Neither did, but Nix didn't miss a chance to take a shot at Dawson, who was sitting to his right.
Dawson has been known this season for taking chances on steals, much to the frustration of Izzo. It happened again Thursday, leading to a 3-pointer for Valparaiso.
"Maybe BJ gambling was more of a Pershing style of play when he was going for those steals," Nix said.
"One time," Dawson replied as the room, and more importantly Izzo, erupted in laughter.
Michigan State outrebounded Valparaiso, 49-23. It was the fewest rebounds by a Michigan State opponent this entire season.
… Michigan State is 11-2 all-time at The Palace and 3-0 there in NCAA Tournament play.
… Izzo ranks fifth among active coaches with 37 NCAA Tournament victories.