Branden Dawson already was a primetime player before he took the court against Purdue a season ago. But with one moment etched in the time from the second matchup of the year against the Boilermakers, Dawson found himself on an entirely new level in his home state.
With the Spartans leading by nine in the second half, the then-freshman guard Dawson picked up a breakaway pass from senior guard Brandon Wood and elevated to the rim for a windmill dunk reminiscent of former Spartan Jason Richardson. Although it was just two of his 15 points in the game, it was enough to cement Dawson as one of college basketball’s most intriguing players while earning the ire of a program that once recruited him.
The play was met with a split reaction at Mackey Arena, as the Spartan bench rose to its feet in excitement while the fans greeted the Gary, Ind. native with jeers. And after the Spartans swept Purdue in the season series, few could blame them.
Yet after a season full of big moments, Dawson’s still hungry to make his mark.
After watching Purdue (7-6 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) upset No. 11 Illinois on Wednesday, Dawson said he needs a strong showing for the No. 18 Spartans (11-3, 0-1), who dropped their Big Ten opener against No. 9 Minnesota on New Year’s Eve.
“They were basically the underdogs (against Illinois) and they showed they can play and they can beat any team in the Big Ten,” Dawson said. “As far as me playing Purdue, I look at it as another team. I know I’ll have to play hard and come out and just play. I don’t have a problem with their program; Purdue is a great team.”
The Boilermakers are led by junior guard Terone Johnson and senior guard/forward D.J. Byrd, who have contributed 13.6 and 9.8 points per game, respectively. Against the Illini, Johnson found success in the paint and finished with a career-high 25 points, while Byrd slid to his knees to make a critical rebound down the stretch, which ultimately let the Boilermakers seal the deal in the second half.
Coming into Breslin Center, Purdue is on a three-game winning streak capped by the Illinois victory on its home floor.
It was the type of hard-nosed effort by the Boilermakers that head coach Tom Izzo has been looking for in his own team this season. And as junior guard Keith Appling prepares to take the court against Purdue, he said he’ll keep the performance of the team against a difficult Illinois team in mind.
“They just fought the whole game (against Illinois), you know,” said Appling, who leads the Spartans with 14.9 points per game. “No matter what the situation was, they (were) out there fighting as hard as they can one through five. It wasn’t just one player; everyone was doing it. I mean, that’s pretty much why they (were) able to come out with the win.”
With the departure of sophomore guard Brandan Kearney, who announced his transfer from the program in December, Izzo has turned to Dawson to be more versatile on the court. Dawson has seen time at power forward this season, but likely will see more time at small forward without the nearly 17 minutes of nightly production from Kearney.
After starting all 14 games this season, Dawson is third on the team with 9.6 points per game to go along with 5.9 rebounds for Spartans.
However, as Dawson continues his recovery from tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, against Ohio State in March 2012, Izzo said he’s trying to manage his expectations for the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Spartan playmaker.
“I’m challenging him a little bit more each day,” Izzo said. “I’m bringing him in more and watching more film with him. I’ve been telling him what I think and what I don’t think … He’s not playing as well; I think he knows it and we know it. But, again, I’m playing him to try and get him ready and I think that’s what we gotta do.”
The Spartans tip off with Purdue on Saturday at Breslin Center (noon, Big Ten Network).