MSU title hopes will rise or fall with Branden Dawson

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When Tom Izzo was asked a couple of weeks ago what he expects from Branden Dawson, he didn't mince words.

"He's supposed to be a pro," Izzo said bluntly. "He's supposed to be a great player this year."

And as No. 18 Michigan State prepares to open the season Friday at Navy in the Veteran's Classic, Dawson's potential ascension to greatness will play a huge role in whether the Spartans have a season they have become accustomed to — competing for a Big Ten championship and making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament — or take a step back from a team that came within a few points from another Final Four trip last season.

"Does he take another step up?" Izzo said. "Does he average the 15, 16 points and eight or nine rebounds that he did the last six or seven games of the season once he got back? If he does that, I think this team could progress greatly."

It could because that would mean Dawson has become great — consistently great.

And that's been the biggest issue with the 6-foot-6 forward since he came to Michigan State in the fall of 2011 from Gary, Indiana, as a five-star high school All-American. His physical ability was never in question.

It was that consistent motor, one Izzo has harped on with Dawson since Day 1, that always has been the toughest goal to attain.

When it's running, Dawson can be a man among boys, as he was late last season after returning from a nine-game absence because of a broken hand.

In seven postseason games he averaged 15.7 points and 8.1 rebounds and was named MVP of the Big Ten tournament. In a victory over Harvard in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, he had 26 points and nine rebounds. He added 24 points and 10 rebounds the next game against Virginia.

When the motor is off, Dawson is simply taking up space on the floor.

The final straw, if you will, came in the Elite Eight loss to Connecticut. Dawson was back to being a bystander with five points and eight rebounds in 34 minutes.

"I went back and watched that game because it hurt, we were so close," Dawson said. "Sometimes I think, 'What if I did this or got this rebound?' It's just going back and seeing what I could have done better to win."

The answer was clear — bring the energy he did in the previous games and things likely would have turned out better.

It hasn't always been as simple as choosing to play harder for Dawson. Sometimes, it's been as easy as telling himself to go harder and he does. But he also hasn't exactly gotten all the breaks when it comes to health.

He was enjoying a solid freshman season in 2011-12 when, on the final day of the regular season, he tore the ACL in his left knee against Ohio State. He returned to play all 36 games in 2012-13, but missing that summer kept him from working on his game.

And when he began last season, the same inconsistency existed. He was outstanding some games (18 points, 10 rebounds against Oklahoma), solid in others (11 points, 10 rebounds against Texas) and virtually non-existent in others (2 points, 3 rebounds against North Carolina).

It was only while he sat out nine games with the broken hand — he punched a table as teammates and television analysts questioned his consistency — that it started to click for Dawson. Sitting out, he started to see the difference he could make.

"I was wanting to be back so bad," Dawson said explaining his return late last year.

He went on to score in double figures six straight games and shot nearly 70 percent. And even with the poor showing against Connecticut, Dawson took the same approach to the offseason, spending countless hours in the gym and even changing his diet.

"I'm in the best shape of my life," he said.

Now he is poised to not only look like an NBA player, but likely become an NBA player. It's something Izzo is convinced already would have happened if Dawson hadn't suffered a knee injury.

But Dawson, who at least thought about leaving after last season, said he made promise to his mom and that the NBA will be there when he is done with his final season.

"I promised my mom I would get my degree," he said. "I never pressed going to the league, so I think I definitely knew I was going to come back for my senior season."

The ceiling is high for Dawson — the Sporting News named him a preseason All-American — and in turn, the team. Dawson believes that, and so does his coach. But it all comes back to that motor.

"It's running on a lot higher rpms than it has been," Izzo said. "I think if he can do that on a consistent basis, he won't only be a good player, he'll be a great player and have a phenomenal senior year, which he has to for us to be great."

Michigan State

Coach: Tom Izzo, 20th season, 468-187

2013-14: 29-9, 12-6 Big Ten (tied for 2nd)

Notable losses: Gs Gary Harris and Keith Appling, F Adreian Payne

Notable newcomers: Gs Bryn Forbes, Lourawls Nairn Jr. and Javon Bess, F Marvin Clark

Opener: Friday at Navy

Conference opener: Dec. 30 vs. Maryland

Best nonconference game: Nov. 18 vs. Duke (Indianapolis)