CHICAGO | It had been two years since Branden Dawson had played in the postseason and the Michigan State sophomore was feeling the opportunity slip away last Friday at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
The Gary native hadn’t been on the floor during a postseason game since Lew Wallace lost a disappointing regional semifinal game to Western in 2011 and with the Spartans trailing by 10 points at halftime against Iowa; Dawson decided it was time to speak up.
“The most vocal guy in our locker room was Branden Dawson,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He talked about the long road and we’re not losing. This was my time to see if the guys were going to take their team over a little bit and they did. I just leaned up to the wall and asked whoever wanted to talk. That’s when Dawson said some things.”
Dawson has started 63 games over his two-year career, but the guard had his freshman season come to a premature end when he suffered an ACL injury in last year’s regular-season finale against Ohio State. Dawson underwent surgery and missed the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
Thinking of all the long hours of frustrating rehabilitation, Dawson couldn’t contain himself when he felt the Spartans weren’t playing up to their potential.
“I was motivated a lot to play well in the tournament after missing last season,” Dawson said. “I had some nerves and I normally keep my mouth shut, but we needed to play loose and start having some fun.”
The Spartans came back to beat Iowa and in the eyes of Izzo, the team “grew up a little bit.” Michigan State lost a tough contest with Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals, but Dawson has big expectations for his first NCAA tournament game when the No. 3 Spartans open against No. 14 Valparaiso on Thursday morning in Auburn Hills.
“The main thing that we need to focus on is just us,” Dawson said. “I’m excited to play in my first NCAA tournament game. We’re going to come out with energy and we’re going to play aggressive.”
Dawson is averaging just under 10 points per game this season, but has had trouble with his surgically-repaired knee stiffening up throughout the season, including when he played back-to-back games in the Big Ten tournament. The sophomore represents a matchup problem for the Crusaders and could have a big impact on the outcome of the game.
“B.J. is just dealing with the wear and tear of the season,” Izzo said. “There is nothing wrong with the structure of the knee; it’s just wear and tear. He wasn’t able to do what most people were able to do in the off-season.”