East Lansing — Adreian Payne’s foot was in a walking boot. Keith Appling looked like a guy who could’ve used a full body cast. And Tom Izzo appeared to be a coach in need of a straitjacket.
Nights like these can be a pain, all right, a whistle-stop tour de force for ugly Big Ten basketball, with more personal fouls than made baskets and so much to complain about that even the winning coach looks like he just had his car towed.
But nights like these can be revealing, too. And as he assessed all that had gone wrong in Michigan State’s 71-66 win over Indiana, Izzo didn’t hesitate to point to the one thing that finally went right, if only for a fleeting moment.
Sure, it was Gary Harris, the Spartans’ shooting star, who carried the scoring load for the third-ranked Spartans as they improved to 7-0 in the conference, setting up a potential first-place showdown with Michigan at the Breslin Center Saturday.
But it was Branden Dawson, Michigan State’s resident enigma, who “probably won the game for us,” Izzo said. And he did it all in a two-minute stretch midway through the second half, reminding the Spartans why they’re the best team in the league and reminding his coach — again — why he’s worth all the cajoling.
“That’s why he frustrates me,” Izzo said, repeating something he’s said so many times that even Dawson’s saying it now.
“Yes, I kind of do frustrate myself,” he admitted Tuesday night, when I asked him if ever felt the same way. “I get caught up thinking a little too much, rather than just going out there and playing my game. Sometimes I really frustrate myself. But I just have to go out there and play.”
Worth the effort
The way he played Tuesday night — a 13-point, nine-rebound effort that could’ve been much more — offers some hope, at least.
“Maybe this’ll make him understand,” Izzo said. “Because, and I said this in the locker room: As well as Harris played, I expect that out of him. But Dawson might’ve been a game-changer just in that stretch.”
This was a game that could’ve used more than a few cosmetic changes, obviously. Ugly doesn’t even begin to describe the first half, as the two teams combined for 21 personal fouls and 15 turnovers. And the look on Izzo’s face as his team began the second half by running the wrong play — just as the Spartans had done to start the game — probably said it all.
But things really got tense when the Hoosiers, coming off an embarrassing home loss to Northwestern, grabbed a five-point lead midway through the second half with a 10-2 run fueled by four lazy turnovers.
Dawson was responsible for the first, leading to a fastbreak dunk for Jeremy Hollowell and quick hook from Izzo.
But when he was reinserted into the lineup a couple of minutes later, the game really did change.
The athletic, 6-foot-6 junior posted Austin Etherington on the block, took a nice entry pass from Denzel Valentine and scored with a strong move, drawing a foul.
He converted the three-point play to give the Spartans the lead at 49-48. At the other end, he skied for a rebound, started the break and fed Valentine for a layup and another three-point play. A minute later, his tip-in off a missed jumper by Harris brought the crowd – and the Spartans’ bench — to its feet again.
“He’s a big-time player,” Valentine said. “He’s an energy guy. And when he does that, we’re a way better team.”
And during the ensuing timeout, he certainly heard about it, from his teammates and his coaches, particularly Izzo.
“He said, ‘You see?!?! You see what I’m talking about?!?!’” Dawson said. “He just kept saying that.”
He says it so often it sounds like a broken record. But Izzo knows he has to keep trying, especially now with Payne still out because of a foot injury that could keep him out of Saturday’s rivalry game.
Good isn't enough
Dawson’s getting more one-on-one time at practice, and he’s working extra with strength coach Mike Vorkapich. The other day, Izzo pulled Dawson into his office for a little extra film work, watching clips of himself in action, good and bad.
As Izzo said Monday, the stats indicate he’s been a pretty decent player this season. Then again, they also said he had a good first half Tuesday. But good isn’t nearly good enough, his coach insists, “because I think he’s a great player.”
And though he says he’s seeing signs recently that Dawson is ready to “take a big step,” this effort hardly qualifies.
“I meant the whole game,” Izzo said, finally offering a smile.
“He did step up. And yet I think he has a lot more to give. Maybe we’ll get it out of him now. He’s getting better.”
Call it a baby step, then. But we all know how unsteady those can be.