College Basketball Nation: Branden Dawson

Can Branden Dawson do it all?

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
For Michigan State, last season was The Season. I mean, just look at that starting five.

Gary Harris, one of the nation's best freshmen in 2012-13 -- a truly one-and-done-level shooting guard who stayed for Year 2 -- was playing better on both ends of the floor. After morphing from an athletic shot-blocker into a perimeter threat late in 2012-13, Adreian Payne lived up to all expectation: He was the best all-around big man in the country. Keith Appling, a senior point guard with three tumultuous, character-building years at his back, was posting the most efficient offensive numbers of his life. Tom Izzo had flexibility in his fifth starter/subs spots, with guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine and forward Matt Costello. And Branden Dawson was doing what he does best: Rim-running, rebounding, cleaning everything up.

[+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesTo reach its usual lofty standards in 2014-15, Michigan State will need Branden Dawson to shine.
That was the Michigan State we saw early in the season, the one everybody thought could and would win the national title. You know what happened next. Appling winced through a shoulder injury that grounded his early efficiency into dust. Payne battled a foot problem that kept him off the court for six of his team's first eight Big Ten games. On Jan. 23, near the end of Payne's convalescence, Dawson, angry with himself during a team tape session, slammed his hand into a table. The hand broke, and Dawson missed the next nine games as it healed.

On Feb. 1, Michigan State went to Madison Square Garden to play a late-season nonconference game against Georgetown. The Spartans lost 64-60 to a mediocre Hoyas group; they couldn't have looked less like the November ideal.

The situation improved by March. Everyone was back on the floor, and the Spartans were a popular national title pick. But Appling never got back to the slick stuff he flashed early in the season. The Spartans fell prey to Connecticut's chaotic backcourt attack in the Elite Eight. With all that talent and experience, it was hard to feel like bad luck -- injuries, in other words -- caused the Spartans to miss their shot.

The disappointment might make it easy to forget why, even after an injury-plagued season, with at least three key players still recovering from issues so late into the year, so many people took Michigan State to win the title anyway. It's exactly what makes the 2014-15 campaign a fascinating one for Michigan State: Branden Dawson was awesome.

After returning from injury -- with a cast still on his hand -- Dawson played the best and most consistent basketball of his career. In MSU's six postseason games before the Connecticut loss, including three in their victorious Big Ten tournament run, Dawson shot 100-of-138 from the field. He grabbed just over eight rebounds per game. His average offensive rating was 152.3. Against Harvard, in the third round of the NCAA tournament, he scored 26 points on 12-of-15 from the field. Against Virginia, he had 24 on 9-of-16, and shot 6-of-8 from the line. Michigan State couldn't have won either game without him.

This is the kind of postseason production that gets you on the cover of regional college sports preview magazines. It's the kind that gets you onto the preseason All-Big Ten team. Keep that up, the thinking goes, only do a lot more of it. Presto: You're a star.

The only problem? Dawson's production came from within a well-populated galaxy of talent. His usage rate rarely climbed above 20 percent. Plays were almost never called for him. To wit: According to Synergy, Dawson's top three possession types -- the kinds of situations in which he would end Michigan State's possessions with a shot -- came on cuts (23.2 percent), transition (23.2 percent) and offensive rebounds/put backs (22.1 percent). His total number of post-ups all of last season … actually, wait, take a guess. You ready? Thirty-two.

Which brings us to 2014-15, and why Michigan State is fascinating in both the positive and negative sense of the term. By sheer fact of personnel attrition, Dawson now inherits the go-to mantle on a team that, at its best, could spread the ball between at least three reliable one-on-one scorers last season. Meanwhile, the team around him now is totally different. Trice and Valentine will take the backcourt responsibilities, and Costello will likely take over a primary frontcourt role.

Trice is a great shooter, and Valentine might be the best -- or at least the most entertaining -- passer in the country. But make no mistake: Dawson will have to be one of the nation's best players for the 2014-15 Spartans to reach their typically high standards for success.

He's done it before, on a team with so much talent an Elite Eight appearance felt like a letdown. Can Dawson do it in 2014-15, under drastically different circumstances? And if he doesn't, how good can Michigan State really be?

3-point shot: Izzo's optimism

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20

In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on Michigan State's offseason and Tom Izzo's optimism, Izzo's preference to schedule games against military academies and how Georgia State is building its team.

NEW YORK -- The seedings tell us Michigan State and Connecticut don’t belong here anymore.

But we know better than that, don’t we?

Michigan State versus UConn … just let that simmer for a moment.

This isn't a matchup of No. 4 and No. 7 seeds. It’s the college basketball equivalent of a heavyweight fight, making it only fitting that Madison Square Garden will serve as host.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter a tough regular season, Branden Dawson has been a big part of Michigan State's postseason run.
Just do the math. Seven Elite Eights since 1999 for the Huskies. Eight Elite Eights during that same span for the Spartans.

The fans of these two teams are spoiled rotten. And we will be, too, come Sunday afternoon.

“We understand when you get to an Elite Eight, you’re gonna play one of the best teams in the country. Michigan State is one of those guys,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Saturday. “Great guards, great big guys, great tradition, great coach and it’s gonna be definitely a dogfight.”

“We have got more experience inside. They have probably got a little more outside,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think for the most part, both of us got a decent amount of experience to be playing in an Elite Eight game, and I think that’s what should make it a great, great game.”

Both teams entered the season with lofty expectations, each residing in the Associated Press Top 25. Connecticut was ranked 18th and picked to finish second behind only Louisville in the inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference.

Michigan State was 16 spots higher -- just a sliver behind Kentucky in a virtual tie for preseason No. 1.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a season, for both teams. UConn opened 9-0 but then suffered back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU four weeks later and dropped out of the national rankings entirely. The Huskies finished tied for third in the AAC, but were embarrassed by Louisville in the teams’ regular-season finale 81-48.

Michigan State was 18-1 in late January, looking every bit as good as expected. But then the Spartans, thanks in part to several injuries, lost seven of their final 12 regular-season games -- including a stunning loss to Georgetown here at the Garden on the first day of February.

Seems like ancient history now.

Speaking of history, that’s been the theme in New York this week. After all, these are the first NCAA tournament games in 53 years at Madison Square Garden.

But two Michigan State players are trying to avoid making history Sunday. If the Spartans don’t beat UConn, seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will become the first four-year players in Izzo’s 19-year tenure to fail to reach at least one Final Four.

“That’s the extra chip that we have on our shoulders,” Appling said. “So we’re just kind of embracing the moment.”

Izzo said it was something the team talked about early in the season. “I didn't bring it up as much in the last two months, because we had so many other things to deal with,” Izzo said. “Yet I'm starting to hear them talk about it, and I think it's a good thing.”

This isn't the last chance for junior forward Branden Dawson, but he’s certainly playing like it is. Dawson scored 20 just once in the first 35 games of the season, including missing nine games with a broken right hand after slamming it on a table during a film session. But he had 26 points and nine boards in the Spartans’ third-round win over Harvard, and followed that up with 24 and 10 against Virginia on Friday.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Dawson said, of all the criticism the team heard during that rough stretch. “A lot of people on campus, we went to go get something to eat, went to the stores, a lot of people were just asking us, ‘What's going on with the team?’ Some people said it was my fault.”

If Michigan State is playing with a chip on its shoulder, then Connecticut is playing with ... well, an even bigger chip. UConn was banned from postseason play one year ago, meaning the Huskies -- despite finishing 20-10 -- were home watching March Madness.

Actually, they didn't even do that. “I actually couldn't even watch the tournament last year,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “It was so painful.”

The program could have imploded -- after all, these players were being punished for the academic sins of their predecessors. Instead they stuck together, with eyes planted firmly on the following March.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier, Monte Morris
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter sanctions kept UConn out of the NCAA Tournament last year, Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are enjoying their Elite Eight run.
“It gave us a lot of motivation. We wanted to be in that tournament, but we couldn't,” Napier said. “I felt like we had chances to either let it bring you down or motivate you, and I think we let it motivate us.”

“Just find positives in everything -- that’s one thing I've learned from Coach [Kevin] Ollie,” Boatright said. “Any negative, you try to find the positive.”

Ollie has done a fine job navigating this program through such a challenging period. But he’s still in just his second year, trying to replace Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.

So far, so good -- but this is still uncharted territory. “Those are things I can’t control,” Ollie said, of the high expectations. “What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion.

“I can't be Coach Calhoun," Ollie said. "But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own."

So, let’s review. Two college basketball programs with a combined five national championships, and 15 Elite Eight appearances in the past 16 years -- and yet both teams still feel as though they have something to prove, at this late stage of March?

Sounds like the recipe for a classic -- a bout to remember, and worthy of the storied setting.

Now all that’s left is to ring the bell.

Video: Michigan State F Branden Dawson

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29

Andy Katz interviews Michigan State forward Branden Dawson after Michigan State's 61-59 victory over Virginia in the East region semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

NEW YORK -- Wow, that was fun.

The NCAA tournament returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 53 years on Friday night. The atmosphere was electric, and the teams did not disappoint. Michigan State staved off Virginia 61-59 in the nightcap. Here are five quick observations:

Crowd control: So much talk leading up to Friday night's doubleheader concerned the strong showing expected from Connecticut fans, and the Huskies had a definite home-court advantage in Game 1, but Virginia might have had an even bigger advantage in Game 2. The amount of orange in the building was Syracuse-esque here at MSG.

And the Virginia fans were loud, too! Can't blame them for being worked up, considering this was the team's first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995. Well done, Wahoos.

Old school: Around these parts, we used to be treated to some mighty good defensive battles during the heyday of the Big East. This game brought that era to mind.

Just like Wichita State-Kentucky featured shot-making worthy of the Final Four, as opposed to the round of 32, Michigan-State-Virginia belonged another round or two down the road.

Experience counts: Despite all that good defense, we saw some great shot-making down the stretch from both sides.

How about Virginia's Justin Anderson -- scoreless for 38 minutes -- draining a 3-pointer with 1:53 remaining to tie the game at 51?

But the biggest shot of the game was Adreian Payne's trey 22 seconds later which broke the tie and gave the Spartans the lead for good. Don't forget Payne's two clutch free throws with 32.9 seconds left -- in a 1-and-1 situation, no less -- pushing a 56-54 lead to 58-54.

Payne is a senior, Michigan State's been to the Sweet 16 six times in the past seven seasons and the Spartans made more plays at the end when it counts. That's no coincidence.

MVP? All this talk about Michigan State's senior class potentially being the first under Tom Izzo to not reach a Final Four, and it's a junior trying to lead them there.

Branden Dawson scored 20 points just once in the first 35 games of the season, but Dawson had 26 points and nine rebounds in the Spartans' third-round win over Harvard and followed that up with a team-high 24 points and 10 boards against Virginia.

Can't wait: The lower seeds won each of the two games here Friday night, yet it felt like the favorite won both games.

Forget the Spartans' No. 4 seed and the Huskies' No. 7: Michigan State versus UConn? That's a battle of college basketball heavyweights.

In Madison Square Garden, with a spot in the Final Four at stake? It doesn't get much better than that.
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Three weeks ago, the expectations for the Michigan State basketball team were pretty low. Riddled with injuries and unable to find any semblance of chemistry, it seemed as though the Spartans were a team destined for an early NCAA tournament exit.

[+] Enlarge2014 Presidential Bracket
Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaPresident Obama will be rooting for Michigan State over the next few weeks.
A few wins and Big Ten tournament title later, they’re the No. 4 seed in the East Region. The expectations soared as fans discussed how under-seeded the Spartans were, how they were no worse off than Michigan or Wisconsin, which both received No. 2 seeds.

Then, President Obama picked the Spartans to win it all in his annual "Barack-etology." For Michigan State, it was fine to know that experts and analysts were picking the Spartans to cut down the nets, but when the president of the United States knew the names and stats and stories of the Michigan State team, it struck some members of the team.

“When I saw that it was just bizarre that Barack Obama picked us and he was talking about Keith [Appling] and injuries and us getting back and playing together as a team,” Branden Dawson said.

However, the Spartans were quick to temper that feeling with the knowledge that Obama’s pick doesn’t give them any kind of an advantage heading into their second-round game against Delaware on Thursday.

“That’s an honor for him to say that,” Gary Harris said. “It’s not going to be handed to us. We have to go out there and prove it.”

“I’m glad that he has such high expectations,” Appling added. “But nothing has been accomplished yet.”

And historically, Obama’s vote of confidence hasn’t generally translated into on-court victories. In his six years of picking the tournament, only once has he correctly chosen the eventual champion -- in 2009 with North Carolina.

Even so, every member of the team is appreciative of the support. Even Michigan State coach Tom Izzo joked about the potential sway the president could have on the tournament.

“I’m trying to get ahold of the president right now and see if he has any pull with the officials since he picked us that high,” Izzo said.

Obama doesn’t have any pull with NCAA officials, but it surely doesn’t hurt the Spartans' locker room vibe to know that the president is going to be sporting green and white over the next month.

Video: Michigan State's catalyst

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25

Seth Greenberg, Jay Williams and Rece Davis discuss the impact that Branden Dawson's return will have on Michigan State's Final Four hopes.
NEW YORK -- On the eve of Super XLVIII across the Hudson River, two college basketball heavyweights went toe-to-toe at Madison Square Garden.

Georgetown pulled the upset, knocking off No. 7 Michigan State 64-60, but don’t panic, Spartans fans -- you still had a pretty good week.

Playing without two of their top four scorers (Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson), who also happen to be the Spartans' two leading rebounders, Michigan State managed a split this week -- winning at No. 15 Iowa on Tuesday before losing on Saturday.

And don’t be fooled by the Hoyas’ record -- they had lost five in a row, but that includes games against No. 9 Villanova, No. 20 Creighton, at Xavier and an overtime loss to Marquette. They’re better than you might think.

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsGary Harris, who scored 17 second-half points against Georgetown, should get some help when Adreian Payne returns from a foot injury.
"Disappointing but not upsetting," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said to open his postgame news conference. "I know John Thompson [III]. I know his teams. … They’re tough, they play hard and they lost some games that I didn’t think they should have lost."

That being said, Izzo did have plenty of criticism for his own squad. "Today, we got out-toughed; we really did. We got thrown around on the boards. We got posted up," Izzo said. "I thought they manhandled us."

Michigan State led 30-29 at halftime despite shooting just 11-for-27 from the field (40.7 percent). But Georgetown went in front for good less than 30 seconds into the second half on a 3-pointer by Reggie Cameron.

The Hoyas never led by more than eight, and the Spartans cut it to two at 56-54 on a Gary Harris 3-pointer with 1:32 left. But on the next possession, Jabril Trawick followed up a Markel Starks miss to push the lead back to four, and Georgetown put the game away from there.

Michigan State shot just 21-for-53 for the game (39.6 percent), 9-for-16 from the foul line and was outrebounded 37-30. The Spartans were 30th in Division I in rebounds per game coming in.

Harris agreed with his coach’s assessment. "They were out-toughing us to get rebounds," he said. "In the end, that cost us the game."

Harris scored a game-high 20 points, 17 of which came in the second half, but he did miss some wide-open looks.

"I was surprised how bad we played, myself included," he said. "I played horrible in the first half. I can’t let that happen, especially coming into a game like this."

Izzo and his players have every right to be disappointed. It was a much-hyped matchup, played on a big stage.

And Thompson had every right to be excited, though he chuckled when told about Izzo’s "manhandled" comment.

"I don’t know about that. But you’re not going to beat Michigan State, or any team in the Big East, if you aren’t physically tough," Thompson said. "Traditionally down through the years, [Izzo’s] teams have been one of the more physical teams in the country, and so I thought we met the challenge today."

Izzo’s team will be far more challenging once Payne (16.2 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game) returns from a foot injury. Izzo said Payne is expected to return to practice Monday. He could play Thursday night against Penn State.

Getting Payne back is far more important than a nonconference game against Georgetown, even if it was Super Saturday in New York.

They just have something that’s difficult to explain. These incomplete, oft-injured, Big Ten-contending, won’t-go-away-even-on-the-road No. 7 Michigan State Spartans.

Somehow, they knocked off No. 15 Iowa in Iowa City on Tuesday during a brutal Big Ten game that even the purists would call foul. There was nothing pretty about the 71-69 Michigan State overtime win.

There were mostly mistakes.

Officials made the bulk of them -- so many missed calls, confusing whistles and inconsistency.

Early in the second half, Keith Appling triple-jumped to the bucket and scored. It apparently wasn't a travel. Fran McCaffery drew a technical after he protested -- and that wasn’t the worst call of the night.

The officials were joined in folly by the two teams competing against one another for a meaningful Big Ten win.

You could have watched “Titanic” twice during Iowa’s lengthy stretch without a field goal (in reality, it a 14:50 period that started in the second half, bled into overtime and felt like forever). There were 63 combined free throws (43 attempts by Iowa, 20 by Michigan State).

Roy Devyn Marble scored 21 points on a 7-for-15 night. Iowa’s other starters? Just 6-for-19. Michigan State committed 29 fouls and made just 11 of 20 free throws.

[+] EnlargeKeith Appling
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallKeith Appling led Michigan State with 16 points as the shorthanded Spartans pulled out an overtime win at No. 15 Iowa.
In the end, however, Michigan State snatched the win from an Iowa team that should watch this game film for the rest of the season until it captures the grit that the Spartans boast.

Matt Costello’s late tip-in and Russell Byrd’s crippling 3-pointer with 33 seconds remaining in the extra period that gave the Spartans a six-point edge were examples of that grit.

They held a bigger Iowa team to just 10 points in the paint during the final 25 minutes of the game, per ESPN Stats & Information.

The Spartans were missing two key starters -- Adreian Payne (foot) and Branden Dawson (broken hand) -- on the road against an Iowa team that usually employs 10 guys with minimal drop-off and yet Michigan State still won.

It wasn't all offense. Appling, Denzel Valentine, Gary Harris, Byrd and Costello were all significant playmakers for Michigan State throughout the night. The team hit clutch shots down the stretch that the Hawkeyes couldn’t match.

And it wasn’t all defense. Michigan State was tough on Iowa but some of the shots were mysteriously awry for McCaffery’s program. Nothing would fall.

The Spartans keep fighting, despite their limitations. They haven’t been healthy all season, but they’re still legitimate candidates for the Big Ten title. Payne and Dawson will eventually return. But they don’t have any plans to accept mediocrity until they’re available.

Every team abides by a similar motto when star players are lost for a chunk or all of the season. They all say the same thing.

We just have to go out there and focus on the guys we have on the floor.

It’s always some variation of that. And it’s nonsense.

In practice it’s never easy to adjust to life without the guy or guys who do things that only they can do for a program. Costello is no Payne. The latter is a unique inside-outside threat who is a young man birthed from the athletic, Euro-hybrid breed.

Yes, they miss Dawson, too. Not just because of what he brings on paper, but because he embodies the brashness that Tom Izzo’s programs have historically embraced.

And yet, there they were in Iowa City throwing punches, ignoring what they didn’t have and focusing on the guys on the floor. They were deliberate, relentless and nasty.

You need that edginess to win conference titles and to survive in the postseason.

Iowa doesn’t have that yet.

That was apparent right after the opening tipoff. The Hawkeyes were walking while Michigan State was running. The Spartans seized a 10-3 lead that set the tone for the night.

You should be worried, not us.

That was their message.

And that bravado, expressed by a team that probably shouldn’t have it given its circumstances, can confuse teams.

The Hawkeyes were at home but looked like a frustrated road team for a portion of the evening. They eventually returned fire and even took a significant lead in the final minutes of regulation. But they couldn’t hold onto it, and the near 15-minute stretch without a field goal didn't help.

But in a game like that, when everything seems to be going wrong for everyone and neither team is playing to its potential, a moment or two can dictate the outcome.

Melsahn Basabe’s late misses. Zach McCabe’s would-be layup that became a turnover when he got blocked a foot from the basket. Byrd’s 3-pointer in the corner in the final seconds of overtime.

Last season, Iowa would have been given credit just for pushing the Spartans. But not this one. The Hawkeyes are too talented for passes and excuses. They have to win games against contenders if they want to be a serious factor in the NCAA tournament.

On Tuesday, they looked like a team that was waiting for something. Waiting for Marble to make something happen. Waiting for a lucky bounce. Waiting for Michigan State to miss.

And that was the difference in the end.

The Spartans just took it.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Before Michigan could even soak in the joys of silencing an opponent’s crowd -- hearing how a rival’s arena goes from a roar to a hush because of what they had done -- the criticism had snuck into most Michigan players’ thoughts.

For so many -- they know -- there will be an asterisk next to the Wolverines’ 80-75 win over Michigan State on Saturday.

Yes, Michigan State was short-handed. Adreian Payne is out with a foot injury and Branden Dawson broke his hand Thursday during a film session (which MSU coach Tom Izzo actually complimented, saying “it’s good to see some passion for basketball.”).

Those two players are important for Michigan State’s success and the Spartans didn’t have them. That is a fact. But basketball is a game with changing elements and coaches play the hands they are dealt.

So don’t let that take everything away from this Wolverines team. Don’t let that completely discount a victory because the Breslin Center is at least a sixth man, maybe even a seventh man on a night like Saturday when Michigan comes to town.

And don’t let that take away from freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. coming into his own on an opponent’s court or Nik Stauskas hitting five 3-pointers with hands in his face. Don’t let that take away from the fact that the Wolverines played their way back into this game, then hit 14 of 16 free throws in the final two minutes.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Walton Jr.
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFreshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. came of age against No. 3 Michigan State, pouring in 19 critical points in No. 21 Michigan's victory.
The Spartans’ injuries don’t negate an impressive win, the Wolverines’ third top-10 win just in eight days. Don’t take anything away from Michigan because Izzo isn’t and won’t.

“Don’t take anything away from them,” Izzo said. “They made some shots. They made some plays. We had our chance.”

That charge was led mainly by sophomore guard Gary Harris, who led all scorers with a career-high 27 points on just nine field goals. Senior point guard Keith Appling recorded a double-double (10 points and 10 assists) to just one turnover.

So the Spartans certainly did have a chance, Harris and Appling made sure of that. And Breslin was there to back them up, to get into the heads of a team that has had 89 percent of its scoring this season come from freshmen and sophomores. Certainly, those are the players that a crowd can get to.

“I’ve never heard a crowd that loud,” Walton said. “Iowa State and Duke really wasn’t that loud. Coming out of that locker room here, hearing 18,000 kids jumping up and down, that was a crazy feeling.”

And while the Wolverines might’ve jumped out to an early lead, hitting their first four shots, it was the Spartans who played the more composed first half. They led 36-30 at halftime and, even without Payne, they allowed just six points in the paint.

That would end up being one of the stat lines the Spartans dominated, scoring 30 points in the paint to Michigan’s 16.

But the Wolverines were better elsewhere. They hit 11 3-pointers. Their top three scorers combined to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor and 77 percent from 3-point range. They rebounded 39 percent of their misses. They shot 83 percent from the charity stripe. They scored 15 second-chance points, the most given up by the Spartans defense this season.

That’s where Appling and Harris and Breslin couldn’t counter enough.

“I’m kind of glad I don’t have to come back here,” fifth-year senior center Jordan Morgan joked after the game.

Off all people, Morgan can talk to the Spartans about stepping up in the midst of injury. He and Jon Horford stepped into the minutes left behind by preseason All-American Mitch McGary when he had back surgery a few weeks ago.

Those two combined for eight rebounds and 10 points in 36 minutes of play.

By the time Morgan was reflecting on his previous games in the Breslin Center it was already empty -- that exodus had begun with a minute left in the game when the momentum had swung heavily to Michigan. He could appreciate the silence then, especially because he knows how rare it is to come by on the road.

In his five years at Michigan the Wolverines have never been better than .500 on the road in a single season. Right now Michigan is 4-2.

“That’s the best part,” Morgan said. “They try to get all in to your head but at the end of the day, you just kind of keep moving and don’t let it affect you. … When we went on our run it got pretty quiet in there.”

And like a veteran team, Michigan put a run on the Spartans. After the last eight days John Beilein’s group has had it’ll certainly see a significant boost in the rankings, and perhaps Izzo’s group will drop sans its two starters.

But those don’t really matter because in a rivalry game statistics and records are thrown out, leaving it to the bitterness to play itself out. And on Saturday, the Wolverines walked away the victors.

The Spartans visit the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Feb. 23 and they’ll then have a chance to silence the Michigan crowd. But for now, let Michigan savor this victory without an asterisk.

“It’s fair to say that we don’t like each other very much,” Stauskas said. “So it makes it a lot of fun to come here on the road and make these fans quiet up.”

Key to OSU-MSU: Transition game

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
For the first time in series history, Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans will meet as top-5 opponents (9 p.m. ET tonight on ESPN).

The AP Poll isn't the only ranking with both teams in the top five.

When the Buckeyes and Spartans meet tonight, the key matchup could be in transition.

Michigan State's transition offense ranks third in the country with 24.3 points per game. Ohio State's transition defense allows just 7.4 points per game, fourth-fewest of any team.

Michigan State transition offense
The Spartans transition offense is led by Gary Harris (6.2 PPG) and Keith Appling (5.3 PPG), who lead the Big Ten in transition scoring.

Michigan State looks to push the ball quickly and often, whether it's off a missed shot, a made shot, or a turnover. The Spartans average 21.5 transition plays per game, the third-most in the country.

Much of their success in transition has to do with their ability to finish well around the basket. The Spartans are shooting 63 percent at the rim this season, eight-best among all teams.

Here's an example of a successful Michigan State transition play and how it transpired:

1. Against Kentucky, Branden Dawson grabbed a defensive rebound in the middle of the paint. Once Dawson secured the rebound, it's evident that all five Kentucky players were turned towards the ball with their eyes on Dawson, while Denzel Valentine was already leaking out in the open court.

2. Without dribbling, Dawson threw the ball ahead to Valentine for an outlet pass over the mid-court line. At the same time, three Michigan State players were spaced out while sprinting down the court with two Kentucky defenders behind them.

3. When Valentine caught the outlet pass, Aaron Harrison was the only Kentucky player back on defense.

4. Dawson -- who originally grabbed the rebound and threw the outlet pass -- beat four Kentucky players down the court, creating a 2-on-1 fast break for the Spartans. Valentine took just one dribble and threw an alley-oop to Dawson for an easy dunk. The entire play lasted less than four seconds.

Ohio State transition defense
Something will have to give in East Lansing tonight, because the Buckeyes transition defense has been just as dominant as the Spartans transition offense this season.

The Buckeyes limit their opponents to just 8.9 transition plays per game, the 14th-fewest of any team. Not only do they limit transition opportunities but they are efficient defending in transition as well. They hold their opponents to the 11th-fewest points per transition play. Teams are shooting just 43 percent against them on those plays.

Let's take a look at an example of an Ohio State defensive transition play that ended with a turnover:

1. After a defensive rebound by Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, he passed the ball ahead to Demetrius Jackson near mid-court.

2. By the time Jackson caught the outlet pass, four Ohio State defenders were already ahead of the ball. As Jackson dribbled down the right side of the court, the four Ohio State defenders closest to Jackson all appeared to have their eyes on Jackson.

3. As Jackson attacked the basket, all five Ohio State defenders had at least one foot in the paint.

4. Aaron Craft forced Jackson to leave his feet under the basket, and Shannon Scott intercepted the pass.

The tempo of the game could play a large part in the outcome as Ohio State tries to limit Michigan State's easy points.

The Buckeyes transition defense is a large part why they rank second in the country in defensive efficiency and haven't allowed 70 points in any game this season.

Big Ten, ACC deadlocked once again

December, 5, 2013

The 15th annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge ended with no resolution to conference supremacy. For the second straight season the clash ended in a 6-6 tie, leaving the ACC with a 10-3-2 advantage.

We know which teams really won the night though: North Carolina, for sure, with its upset over No. 1 Michigan State. No. 8 Wisconsin, which like the Tar Heels won on the road, beating Virginia. And No. 5 Ohio State, which is on a steady ascent up the polls.

On the surface the Buckeyes' win doesn't look that big, as they had unranked Maryland at home. But the way they controlled the game from start to finish and gave the Terrapins a harsh introduction to the league they'll join next year.

Defensively, Ohio State dissected everything the Terps wanted to do. Maryland shot just 39 percent from the field and gave up 25 points off 14 turnovers. That included the final sequence of the first half, when Aaron Craft dove to the floor for a steal and passed ahead to Sam Thompson for a buzzer-beating basket.

[+] EnlargeSam Thompson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSam Thompson's highlight-reel dunks capped off a dominating night for No. 5 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes basically beat the Terps like a ranked team should at home. They never let the lead dip below 10 the entire second half and once up 25 turned the game into one long highlight reel for Thompson.

Columbus discovered the alley-oop Wednesday night as Thompson slammed down lobs on four different occasions.

And those shooting woes that threatened to drag down OSU seem to be a thing of the past too. The Buckeyes shot 52 percent from the field, powered by LaQuinton Ross' 7-of-13 performance. Ross finished with a game-high 20 points.

Ohio State honored former coach Gary Williams prior to the game. Williams coached the Buckeyes from 1986-89 before leaving Columbus for College Park, where he would win the 2002 national title at Maryland. Williams then had to sit through the Terps being handled by the Buckeyes.

Chris Collins also returned to familiar territory, as the Northwestern coach returned to ACC country for the first time since taking the Wildcats job in the offseason. Collins, who played for Duke and also spent 13 years as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski, knows Northwestern's opponent Wednesday, NC State, well. But his intimate knowledge didn’t help the Wildcats muster a win.

Collins’ welcome-back package included a technical foul and 22 points from T.J. Warren, as the Wolfpack cruised to a 69-48 win.

Purdue matched NC State for the biggest margin of victory in the challenge with its 88-67 victory over Boston College. The Boilermakers, led by a season-high 18 points from Terone Johnson, have quietly won five straight in the challenge.

Nebraska salvaged the night for the Big Ten by beating Miami 60-49 in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers held the Canes to a frigid 24 percent shooting performance in the first half en route to a season-low 13 points at the break.

Michigan State didn’t hit new lows against the Tar Heels, it simply didn’t hit back at all.

Most expected Northwestern, Boston College and Miami to have a hard time winning on the road. No one expected the Spartans to lack the fight generally accepted as the norm from Tom Izzo’s team. Even though they bounced back from a 12-point deficit in the first half to tie the game at intermission, they never seemed to bring the fight to the Tar Heels.

MSU’s punchless night could be summed up in one second-half exchange. Branden Dawson seemingly had a clear path to the rim and was poised to give Sparty its first lead of the game, breaking a 38-38 tie. But J.P. Tokoto rotated in time to block the shot and start a fast break that ended with Marcus Paige completing a three-point play.

Carolina never trailed afterward and Michigan State literally hobbled through the rest of the game.

Senior forward Adreian Payne kept cramping up, at one point during the middle of a play, he literally stood on one leg while grabbing his other foot behind him to stretch. Gary Harris, who sat out Michigan State's win over Mount St. Mary’s with an ankle injury, seemed to lack some of his explosiveness. Keith Appling suffered an apparent hip injury late in the first half and shot 5-of-15 from the field.

Virginia joined Michigan State as a big loser from Wednesday night. The Cavs have made quite the acquaintance with the NCAA bubble and missed possibly their last chance for a statement win before conference play begins.

Both of the Cavaliers' losses have come at home to ranked teams, and the common thread is that they haven’t mustered much offense either time.

UVA, which lost to VCU 59-56 on a last-second shot, scored its lowest point total in 20 years against Wisconsin. The Cavs managed only 18 points in the second half, and their total of 38 was the lowest output since losing to UConn 77-36 in 1993.

So while the challenge ended in a tie, the winners and losers Wednesday were clearly defined.
In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.

Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989

  1. Steve Smith (1991)
  2. Jason Richardson (2001)
  3. Zach Randolph (2001)
  4. Morris Peterson (2000)
  5. Eric Snow (1995)
Sixth man: Shannon Brown (2006)

The rest: Alan Anderson, Charlie Bell, Draymond Green, Goran Suton, Maurice Ager, Paul Davis, Marcus Taylor, Andre Hutson, Mateen Cleaves, Jamie Feick, Shawn Respert, Anthony Miller, Mike Peplowski, Matt Steigenga

Why they’re ranked where they are: Since 1995, Tom Izzo has commanded a Michigan State program that has reached the Final Four six times. Prior to Izzo's stint as head coach, his mentor, Jud Heathcote, was in charge. Both implemented a grueling, physical style that has kept the Spartans in the Big Ten’s top tier for years.

When you face MSU, bring bandages. That ruggedness is the stitch that ties the players on this list together. The group might not include any future Hall of Fame performers, but it features multiple players who’ve managed to compete at a high level over the course of lengthy careers. Longevity and consistency were both crucial in our decision to push Michigan State ahead of Syracuse, Ohio State, LSU and Alabama. The Spartans’ potent starting five (since 1989) also helped.

Steve Smith won a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics, earned an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003 and made an All-Star Game appearance in 1998. He averaged 14.3 points per game and hit 35.8 percent of his 3-pointers during a 14-year career that featured 90 playoff games. Smith is also a member of the NBA’s all-time “it’s so hard to dislike these guys” team, which includes Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Robert Horry and various members (past and present) of the Golden State Warriors organization.

[+] EnlargeJason Richardson, Zach Randolph
AP Photo/Jim WeberJason Richardson, left, and Zach Randolph have both been in the NBA since they were drafted in 2001.
Jason Richardson is underrated on so many levels. First, his efforts in the 2002 and 2003 dunk contests rivaled Vince Carter’s performance in 2000. Find the clips on YouTube. He doesn’t get enough credit. And has any player ever averaged 17.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals over a 12-year period more subtly than Richardson? He entered the league as a big, athletic wing, but he has lasted this long because his game has evolved.

Zach “Z-Bo” Randolph just carried the Memphis Grizzlies into the Western Conference finals. Here’s an athlete who left Michigan State after one season. He struggled his first few years in the NBA but everything changed in 2003-04 (20.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG for the Portland Trail Blazers). His off-court issues -- such as the time he ended up at a strip club the night after he’d sought permission from the Trail Blazers to attend a funeral out of town -- have certainly affected perceptions about him. But he found himself in Memphis and has been a model citizen, leading a revival of that city's NBA franchise. And you just won’t find many players who’ve averaged at least 18.0 PPG and 8.0 RPG seven times. He’s also a two-time NBA All-Star.

Morris Peterson (10.7 career PPG) gave the Toronto Raptors his most fruitful years. He never made an All-Star squad but he played for 11 seasons. His 37.3 percent mark from the 3-point line elevated his value. Eric Snow competed in the NBA Finals with three different teams. His years with the Philadelphia 76ers were impressive. Kobe Bryant called him the toughest defender he’d ever faced following the 76ers’ loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 Finals. Shannon Brown, a 2006 NBA draft pick, had the best seasons of his career with the Phoenix Suns in 2011-12 (11.0 PPG) and 2012-13 (10.5 PPG).

Even Alan Anderson and Charlie Bell, two undrafted players, have played a combined 11 seasons in the NBA. Draymond Green, a second-round pick by Golden State last summer, was impressive in the 2013 playoffs.

That’s a rich offering for any list that attempts to rate a school’s history of producing NBA talent based on quality and not simply quantity. That’s why Michigan State is No. 16 in our “Path to the Draft” rankings.

Why they could be ranked higher: If longevity is granted more weight than overall talent and depth, then the Spartans might have a case for a higher slot. Richardson, Z-Bo, Smith and Mo Pete aren’t superstars -- the Spartans haven’t produced a perennial All-Star since Magic Johnson retired in the early 1990s. But many players Michigan State has sent to the next level since 1989 have stayed there.

Michigan State isn’t the only school that can make that claim. But the program boasts a diverse group of players (lottery picks, second-round selections and undrafted athletes) who’ve latched onto rosters and made a lot of money at the next level. The Spartans would probably warrant a bump due to their expectations-to-“years in the league” ratio.

Why they could be ranked lower: The disappointments could pull Michigan State down a few spots. Maurice Ager, Mateen Cleaves and Shawn Respert were all first-round picks who were expected to do big things in the NBA. They all struggled in brief, underwhelming pro stints.

Plus, Smith, Richardson and Randolph fall into the “very good” category, but they’ve never earned or maintained “elite” status. Some of that stuff is political. I think all three were probably harmed by the fact that they competed in smaller markets for chunks of their respective careers. But this list is missing the juggernaut that other teams in these rankings possess.

What’s ahead: Well, Green could blossom into a dependable contributor for Golden State in the coming years. Randolph and Richardson might have a few solid seasons left, too.

And Brown has found a rhythm over the past four seasons. If his 3-point shooting continues to improve (last season saw his first year-to-year decrease from beyond the arc since 2008-09), he’ll continue to be a key piece in Phoenix’s -- or another franchise’s -- rotation. But he has played for five teams since he was drafted in 2006. Perhaps he’ll earn a long-term deal once his two-year agreement with Phoenix expires after next season.

Plus, Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson will likely enter the draft following the 2013-14 season. Payne and Harris certainly have high ceilings. Appling and Dawson are gritty enough to find homes in the league, too. We’ll need four or five years, however, to assess their full impact on Michigan State’s NBA legacy.

Final thoughts: It’s easy to dismiss Michigan State because the Spartans haven’t produced a bunch of NBA All-Stars. Definitely multiple high-level athletes, though. But few stars.

Still, Izzo’s program has developed talented players who stick. That’s not easy to do in the pros, where the average NBA career is just 4.8 years. But Michigan State has sent many players to the league who’ve surpassed that.

Many were doubted once they left college. Some fell short of expectations. But the bulk of the program’s NBA reps are notable, especially based on tenure and consistency.

Overall, Michigan State has a solid resume of NBA talent and more on the way.
Tom Izzo has long since established his reputation for honesty. It's part of why he's so widely respected: With minimal diplomatic exception, he'll tell reporters, fans, staff members and players pretty much what he thinks, whether positive or negative. If a player had a bad game, he'll say so. If he whiffed during a late timeout, he's just as quick to point the thumb.

When Izzo thinks his team is bad, he'll say so. When he thinks his team is great, it's worth making a mental note, because he's almost certainly right.

Consider this post your mental note: According to our old friend Diamond Leung of, Izzo is completely enamored with his 2013-14 Spartans. He isn't around the team every day -- Diamond caught up with Izzo at a West Bloomfield, Mich., charity golf outing -- but his assistants are, and the reports Izzo has been getting have made him unafraid of superlatives:
"Right now, we're having the best summer we've ever had," Izzo said. "There have been more guys in the gym. (Adreian) Payne has been good, and (Gary) Harris is really getting a lot better. (Branden) Dawson I think has made big strides from what I hear."

Those are not small developments. Harris entered the offseason with a nagging shoulder injury. Dawson missed much of last summer while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. That the Spartans are healthy as a baseline is in and of itself good news. When you consider the possible trajectories of the players mentioned, it's more exciting. Payne unveiled a perimeter game last season that makes his senior campaign as fascinating as most sophomores'; Harris was the Big Ten freshman of the year; and the already-athletic Dawson still has huge skills-based potential left to tap.

It's a long way to go yet, but Michigan State shouldn't be the forgotten third wheel in Kentucky and Louisville's early preseason national-title-contention consensus. The Spartans are going to be good. If this summer of workouts keeps up, they could be much more than that.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- VCU has spent much of this season flustering opposing point guards, sending them into various states of disarray and their "Havoc" defense wreaked, well, havoc on the plans of opponents all season long.

The Rams, though, have not seen an offense quite like the one they will Saturday in the round of 32. VCU turns everyone over. Michigan, with its sophomore point guard Trey Burke, hardly ever gives up the ball.

Something has to give.

“It’s a difference of style,” VCU sophomore guard Briante Weber said. “If they take care of the ball, they win. If we get them to turn over, then we win.”

It may come off as that simple, but trying to beat Havoc is anything but.

[+] EnlargeAkron vs. VCU
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesVCU's "Havoc" defense forced Akron into 21 turnovers during the Rams' first-round rout.
Michigan spent Friday morning looking at variations of VCU’s Havoc, then walked through the varying press breaks it would try to use to stop it.

It is not something the Wolverines can simulate. Other teams have tried and failed.

“We really haven’t seen pressure like that in my years of being here,” said Memphis junior guard Chris Crawford, whose Tigers lost to VCU 78-65 in November. “We had to adjust to it, but it was like they were everywhere.”

That is part of the plan. VCU spends its entire preseason working on conditioning and defense in an effort to run Havoc at almost all times, forcing opponents to flail about and start to see passing lanes that aren’t really there.

It happened for Memphis, which turned the ball over 22 times in that loss. That number is what the Rams have averaged in their 27 wins this season. They have blitzed opponents left and right with a press that can have a multitude of variations, depending on the opponent.

“We just try to deny the wings,” VCU guard Darius Theus said. “Team stops, actually. Just build a wall around the basket.”

The wall, at times, can seem impenetrable. It took Memphis a half to figure out exactly how to move the ball up the floor against VCU. And trying to do it with one primary point guard alone won’t work, either.

“What’s crazy is it’s one thing to try and prepare for it,” Memphis assistant Damon Stoudamire said. “When we actually seen it, it started our guys on the initial. If we played them now, we’d be prepared.

“When you see stuff like that, the way it came, it’s like a barrage, boom, boom, boom, boom. And they made shots. They turning you over and then they score, that’s a bad recipe right there.”

The key is to not try and go up the sides of the floor. Doing that will be the high-risk, high-reward maneuver for Michigan. If it beats VCU up the side, it’ll have a fast break. If it doesn’t -- it’ll be a likely turnover.

And it needs to get more than just Burke involved, using guards Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and maybe even backup point guard Spike Albrecht as options.

“Our guys have to stay connected,” Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan said. “They are all connected defensively with their rotations and their traps. We have to be connected offensively.”

Someone will get disjointed Saturday. Whichever team doesn’t likely will end up winning.

News and Notes

  • Memphis and Michigan State know each other well even as nonconference opponents. Tigers point guard Joe Jackson and Spartans guard Keith Applingplayed together on the USA Basketball Under-19 team this summer. “I’m real cool with Keith Appling,” Jackson said. “We played together in the USA games overseas. I kind of know what he can do good and what he can do bad."He isn’t the only one to know a Michigan State player. Memphis’ Adonis Thomas and Michigan State’s Branden Dawson were teammates on the West team in the 2011 McDonald’s All American game, and Dawson said they have stayed in touch. “He’s a great guy,” Dawson said. “A great player. The thing that really shocked me is that he’s 6-7, 240 now. When we were at the McDonald’s, he didn’t weigh that much.” There’s also a decent chance Appling will be matched up with Jackson and Thomas with Dawson on Saturday.
  • Appling tweaked the patellar tendon in his left knee Thursday against Valparaiso. A day later, he said it is still bothering him “a little bit off and on,” but that he anticipated playing tomorrow.
  • Burke said his back is “a little sore” from falling yesterday but definitely would play Saturday. Michigan guard Matt Vogrich, who missed Thursday’s game with strep throat, was back with the team Friday.