Last season, for the first time since Tom Izzo has been at Michigan State, the Spartans' seniors were the first group to never make the Final Four since his arrival in 1995. That level of consistency in college basketball has only been rivaled by few coaches and show why Coach Izzo is truly one of the best in the business. But this upcoming season could prove to be one of his toughest coaching gigs yet. Senior leaders Adreian Payne and Keith Appling are gone, as is Gary Harris to the NBA. Reserve wing Russell Byrd has transferred, and backup forward Kenny Kaminski was dismissed from the team. With five key players departing, the Spartans must find players willing to step up to fill the void of Payne and Harris especially. Who might be the right man for this job? 6'6 wing and now senior leader Branden Dawson.
Dawson is an interesting choice for the selection given his up-and-down performance over the course of last season. At times, Dawson was absolutely brilliant, a defensive stopper against taller players on one of the floor, and an offensive rebounding and slashing machine on the other. Dawson's raw athleticism alone makes him one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten. But Dawson's scoring could be a huge boost for Izzo as the season progresses. His 20 point, 9 rebound effort (8-14 shooting) on the road at Penn State showed the rest of the Big Ten and the country that Dawson could be counted on when it mattered most.
However, Dawson found himself in a bit of trouble, literally breaking his hand when commentator Dan Dakich said Dawson was the key to Michigan State winning the National Championship. Dawson's absence proved costly, as the Spartans went 4-5 without him, losing crucial games against Michigan twice, Iowa, Georgetown and at home to Nebraska. This stretch ultimately cost Izzo and co. a higher seed in the NCAA tournament, but the Spartans were nevertheless determined to make up ground when they had their versatile star back. Michigan State was able to rip through the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament, and Dawson proved to be their guy. He went absolutely bonkers against Harvard, finishing with 26 points and 9 rebounds on 12-15 shooting, and followed that up with a phenomenal performance against #1 seed Virginia (24 points, 10 rebounds, 9-16 shooting.) However, in arguably a game most believed Michigan State should have won, Dawson went quiet, only going 1-3 in 34 minutes while Kevin Ollie's guard-heavy UConn Huskies' team marched on to the Final Four (and eventually became National Champions).
What does all this mean? Dawson must have performances like he did against Harvard, Virginia and Penn State for the Spartans to contend. Many pundits have them pegged to finish second in the conference behind Wisconsin, but this will be a difficult task given their departures. I expect Izzo to go with a starting lineup of Travis Trice, Alvin Ellis, Denzel Valentine, Dawson and Matt Costello, giving the Spartans all five returners in their lineup. The bench, however, is where Izzo could run into problems. Gavin Schilling is a capable enough backup for Costello or Dawson, but there is not much depth at the forward spot besides that, and the only bench contributor who seems ready in the backcourt is freshman Lourawls Nairn. This could be a heavy burden on the Spartan starters, especially if Dawson is asked to play 32-35 minutes a night between both forward positions.
When Dawson is playing carefree, attack-minded basketball, he is one of the best players in the entire country. He knows his role, is a top-tier rebounder especially for his size, and is able to pick his spots on the offensive end. Dawson shot an outrageous 61% from the floor last year, a number that will likely drop solely based on the number of attempts he will have this season. If Dawson can hover around the 50% mark, be a menace on the boards and be the ultimate stopper for his team, Michigan State has the ability to make a deep run in March. If not, look for Michigan State to struggle mightily on the defensive end, and the folks in East Lansing to find that Dan Dakich clip so they can break their hand as well.