Always focus on the bright side of life, right? Coming out of Tuesday night's stinktacular in Champaign, that's approach to life requires a pretty narrow focus. The only glimmer of brightness for Michigan State against Illinois was Branden Dawson (on offense, at least--we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the game was actually MSU's best defensive performance of the Big Ten season to date, by a decent margin).
Dawson was the only Spartan to make more than 33% of his field goal attempts (not even a 1-for-2 to be found in the box score). He just cleared that bar, making 4 of 11 attempts from the floor. Add in 4 points at the free throw line, and Dawson posted a line of 12 points, 13 rebounds (7 of them on offense), and just 1 turnover.
Over the last three games, Dawson is averaging 14.0 points per game on 60.7% field goal shooting. Those performances came following a two-game stretch--the losses at Northwestern and Michigan--in which Tom Izzo only put Dawson on the floor for a combined 29 minutes. He's played nearly that number in each of the last two games (27 and 28).
That gets to the number one key for Dawson--defense. Dawson is as talented as any player Izzo has brought into the program. And he's flashed that talent at different points of the season, scoring in double digits on nine occasions and grabbing four-plus offensive rebounds on six occasions. He's been exposed on defense at times, though, reducing his playing time at key moments.
The good news is that his defensive weakness is arguably a function of his athleticism. He's eager to use that athleticism to go after steals. And it works fairly often; he's had seven multi-steal games. But that instinct doesn't always jive with Izzo's defensive philosophy, which emphasizes staying between the ball and the basket to force tough shots, rather than maximizing turnovers. Dawson's excessive aggressiveness was a particular liability against the back-cutting-like-a-fool Wildcats and Wolverines.
Dawson can clearly defend anyone when he's on an island. He's currently leading the Big Ten in block percentage in conference play. It's just a matter of adjusting his instincts to work within the defensive system.
Which brings us to Sunday. Given the three-game winning streak John Beilein has going, there's no reason to think he won't go with his small lineup, with Zack Novak at the four-spot, for most of the game. And, while Draymond Green is a possibility to play (no one will be able to keep him off the floor if he receives anything close to medical clearance), it's hard to expect that he'll be able stay on the court for his usual 30+ minutes. That means Dawson and Austin Thornton playing at the four. While Thornton can certainly hold his own, Dawson is much more likely to impose himself on offense against Novak, either in the post or on the glass. He just can't give the points back on defense.
Given his lofty accolades coming out of high school--and the seemingly perfect fit he represents for a Tom Izzo team in terms of rebounding and transition scoring--Dawson's career has gotten to off to a slightly slower start than we might have hoped. But he's picking a good time to emerge as a key scorer. He almost single-handedly kept the team in Tuesday night's game. Sunday, he'll get a chance to push them over the top.