East Lansing — For the first three seasons of Branden Dawson's career, there might not have been a player that frustrated Michigan State coach Tom Izzo more.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound power forward had shown flashes of dominance throughout those first three seasons, but it was intertwined with confounding bouts of inconsistency despite constant prodding from Izzo.
Injuries played a role — the torn ACL in the regular-season finale of his freshman season being the most significant — but it didn't explain the up-and-down play.
As a senior, all of that has changed.
"Maturity does play a factor with just being consistent, but I would say my approach toward the game," Dawson said as Michigan State prepared to face Michigan on Tuesday. "Just how I prepare myself for a game the night before and just getting rest, doing the right things up until the game. I think if you take care of things off the court, it leads to (good things) on the court."
Dawson's play on the court has become the one thing Michigan State has been able to rely on in a season of uncertainty. While others have experienced Dawson's usual bouts of inconsistency, he has been a rock.
He leads the Big Ten in rebounding with 10 a game and has recorded a double-double in seven of 12 Big Ten games. In the last meeting with Michigan he had 19 points, 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks and in Saturday's victory over Ohio State Dawson scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, handed out four assists and had five blocks.
It left Ohio State coach Thad Matta wondering about those who have been critical of Dawson.
"My question is who in their right mind, with a brain, would criticize Branden Dawson?" Matta said. "You have to be a moron to criticize that kid. You wouldn't even know anything about basketball if you criticize Branden Dawson. I think from what he's done in his career for Michigan State, I think of all the great players I've coached against and he's one of them."
It's the type of play Michigan State expected when it recruited Dawson out of Gary, Indiana, but something it didn't really see until late last season. That is when Dawson came back from a broken hand and sparked the Spartans to a Big Ten tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament run that ended one game shy of the Final Four.
The flu slowed him early in the non-conference and a broken wrist forced him to sit two games just before Big Ten play began, but despite all that he has been Michigan State's most reliable player.
"I'm continuously impressed with Dawson," Izzo said. "He's still been probably our most consistent player. Double figures in rebounding in 10 out of 12 games is remarkable. He's got think eight double-doubles, seven in the Big Ten, and you know if I remembered all those games early against teams that weren't as good, some of them, he'd get eight rebounds only playing 20-some minutes. I think (Wisconsin's Frank) Kaminsky's got 10 and he got half of his in the non-conference. But his defense has been outstanding and he is the only player in the Big Ten at the top (10) in blocks, steals and defensive rebounds. And that's impressive.
No flop zone
ESPN's Dan Dakich was calling the game on Tuesday, but Izzo wasn't about to relay the advice he had for one of his players from Saturday's game against Ohio State.
Late in Michigan State's 59-56 victory, Ohio State's Amir Williams ran over Michigan State's Matt Costello for an easy basket. Izzo complained and on the broadcast, Dakich said if Costello flopped and went to the floor it would likely have been called an offensive foul.
Izzo wasn't buying it.
"I heard that comment and I loved it," Izzo said. "Because that's how ridiculous it is. I have two assistants that are begging me to do it. I just refuse to do it. The rules state displacement. It does not talk about knocking a player to the ground. Displacement means both have equal ability to keep their space. If one knocks the other one off his space, then it's supposed to be a foul. You know what, I'm probably going to lose this battle, but we ain't flopping."