Indianapolis — As Michigan State prepared to play Duke on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic, coach Tom Izzo was clear in what he needed out of Branden Dawson.
He needed an All-American effort. Actually, he probably needed to be even better than that.
"He said he wants me to be Superman in this game," Dawson said.
Dawson was good, though he fell a bit short of superhero status in No. 4 Duke's 81-71 victory over No. 19 Michigan State.
He scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Spartans and was 8-for-10 shooting. But it wasn't enough against the talented roster of the Blue Devils as Dawson and Denzel Valentine were hindered by foul trouble in the first half.
"We lost Valentine and in Dawson in the first half," Izzo said. "We were down to Colby (Wollenman), a walk-on, and when you're playing him that's not healthy."
It was a game that further magnified how badly Michigan State will need Dawson to play consistently the way he did late last season when he averaged 15.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in the postseason.
But after inconsistent play in two preseason games and a listless performance in the season-opener against Navy when he scored just two second-half points, Izzo is still left trying to find the right buttons to push in order to get reliable play out of Dawson.
"The difference with Branden this year and maybe a couple of years ago is that he's practiced incredibly well," Izzo said Monday. "I've got no complaints. I don't know why in the second half (against Navy) he kind of disappeared, but at the same time, what I'm not as concerned about is practice after practice after practice he's done his job, and he's done it pretty well. He had a great practice (Sunday) and I think he'll play real well (against Duke). He's going to have to for us to win the game."
Dawson has had a tendency to get up for the big games and on Tuesday started in the fourth straight edition of the Champions Classic, the only player to do so. He scored 12 points in a win over Kansas two years ago and last year against No. 1 Kentucky, he was all over the floor, scoring nine points, grabbing eight rebounds and snatching four steals.
To Dawson, playing in big-time environments like the one Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse are what he relishes.
"I think it's definitely easier to get up for this game because it is Duke," Dawson said before the game. "We've been in this position many times, like last year playing against Kentucky when they were No. 1 and playing against a top-five team in the country. I think it's easier to get up for this game because it's more excitement."
Dawson was definitely up for the challenge on Tuesday, but it will take more of the same for Michigan State to get to the point it can win games against the nation's best.
"I take away more positive than negative," Izzo said. "The next time we play we'll be a lot better basketball team, I promise you that."
Great way to start
Michigan State is now 2-2 in the Champions Classic, with both losses coming against Duke. The Blue Devils beat the Spartans in the inaugural event in 2011. The Spartans defeated Kansas in 2012 and No. 1 Kentucky last season.
Duke is now 3-1 in the event while Kansas and Kentucky were 1-2 heading into their matchup in the late game on Tuesday.
"I'm looking at this as our chance to take another step forward in a long season," Izzo said. "It's a great way to start off college basketball."
… Sophomore guard Alvin Ellis did not play after injuring his right ankle in Friday's game at Navy.
Izzo said on Monday that if Ellis were available, it would be on a "very limited" basis. Bryn Forbes got his first career start in Ellis' place
Closer to 1,000
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is now 8-1 all-time vs. Izzo and is 14 wins shy of becoming the first college coach to reach 1,000 victories.
Izzo was just happy there wasn't a chance it could happen Tuesday. It was in the first Champions Classic when Duke beat Michigan State to give Krzyzewski win No. 903 and pass Bobby Knight for No. 1 on the all-time list.
"The good news is I don't have to be a sacrificial lamb like I was in the first one when he was breaking the record," Izzo said. "I think they had every guy that went to Duke at that game. … I respect Mike a lot, I respect what he's done. We've had some great games with him and they were able to win a lot more than we have so far."