Duke It Out

Harris, Dawson return to home state, look to lead Spartans in Sweet 16


Indianapolis — Sitting with his teammates at Breslin Center, watching the NCAA Tournament’s Selection Show for the first time as a college basketball player, Gary Harris saw the Spartans’ name pop up on the TV screen and began to cheer.

What excited the freshman guard at first was the same thing most Spartan fans likely noticed — MSU would stay in state to open the NCAA Tournament.

But it wasn’t until MSU head coach Tom Izzo came up to him moments later that he realized the magic of this season’s draw.

Justin Wan / The State News

Video: Previewing Duke

“At first, I just knew we were playing in Auburn Hills, (Mich.),” Harris said. “Coach (Izzo) came up to me and said, ‘If we win these next two games, you’re going home,’ and I didn’t really know what he was talking about at first. I looked at the bracket again and saw we were coming to Indianapolis, and I thought that was pretty cool.”

Harris and sophomore guard/forward Branden Dawson will try to reach their first Final Four in front of family and friends, when the No. 3 seed MSU men’s basketball team (27-8) begins play in the Sweet 16 against No. 2 seed Duke (29-5) at Lucas Oil Stadium tonight (9:45 p.m., CBS).

Returning to the Hoosier State has fueled Harris and Dawson this season, and with the goal of a third national championship, MSU is hoping there’s more to come this weekend.

Big game kid
The first time Branden Dawson saw Gary Harris, it was as an opponent, staring across the court at a tough, prolific scorer he couldn’t figure out how to stop.

“I’m like, ‘Who is this kid?,’” Dawson said of his thoughts when the two battled at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “He was strong. I didn’t know he played football until then.”

Harris’ football strength and toughness have benefitted the freshman during his first year in college, where he’s battled back spasms and had both shoulders pop out multiple times during the season.

Yet, through it all, Harris not only found a way back onto the floor, but thrived, becoming the first MSU player to win the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, impressing his head coach with his “big heart” and lots of guts.

“He’s a tough kid,” Izzo said after the Spartans’ victory against Memphis one week ago, when Harris scored a career-high 23 points. “He wants to play in the big games … the big stage.”

The highlight-filled performance in MSU’s biggest game of the season wasn’t the first time Harris appeared to relish the big moment.

He scored a then-career high 22 points in his first game against Purdue, the school his mother was an All-American for, as well as a 21-point performance at Indiana, where boos and chants from his home state crowd only fueled him.

Now, with a matchup in his home state against the winningest coach in college basketball history up next, Harris said he’s excited for his biggest stage and challenge to date.

“It definitely is a different energy going into big games, especially playing against the top teams,” Harris said. “There’s always a different vibe, a different energy in the whole building when two pretty good teams are meeting on the same day.”

Ready to run
For Dawson, simply being able to step out on the floor is an opportunity he’s grateful for.

At this time one year ago, Dawson was sitting at home, watching the Spartans play in the Sweet 16 without him, with his knee propped up in his bed after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

And although he hasn’t thrown down dunks with the same ferocity he did during his freshman season, Izzo said he knows his sophomore still has more to give, and he’s determined to get it out of him this week.

“If there’s one guy I’m going to challenge as much as anyone, it’s going to be Branden Dawson, because I think he has the most room to grow, and I don’t think anybody has seen the kid that I recruited yet,” Izzo said. “(I) understand the reasons why this year, but maybe it’s time to take the gloves off.

“I mean, there’s no question, Dawson’s a key guy for us. He’s the guy that makes us go from good to maybe very good if he’s playing with energy and the ability that he has.”

Although some might not want Izzo’s most aggressive, persistent pushing, Dawson said he relishes it.

“I am excited by that,” Dawson said. “Coach said he wants to push me, and it’s motivating that he wants to see me go even harder and just bring forth more effort.”

Still, after hearing a question about Dawson’s role on this year’s team, Harris was inspired to speak up and talk about the things his teammate brings that many don’t see.

“He does a lot of stuff that most people wouldn’t really recognize, like keeping the ball alive, getting other people points, like little hockey assists,” Harris said. “He makes a lot of things happen that don’t necessarily go in the stat book, but when we watch film he makes a lot of plays happen, and is a key part to our success over the past two games.”

And for his persistent effort, Dawson has been rewarded by the bracket.

After playing in front of his family at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago, near his hometown of Gary, Ind., he gets the chance he didn’t get last season — to participate in the NCAA Tournament in his home state.

“It put a smile on my face because when we played in the Big Ten (Tournament) in Chicago, it was great,” Dawson said. “It is a unique experience. I really wasn’t able to play last year, but now, being that it’s the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis is definitely fun, and I’m just ready to go. I’m just ready to play.”

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