San Diego — When most freshmen begin their college basketball careers, there usually is some time for adjustment — a period to get used to the drastic differences between playing in high school and playing NCAA Division I basketball.
But Branden Dawson is not most freshmen.
Coming to East Lansing as a five-star wing out of Gary, Ind., Dawson will start in his first ever college basketball game today against No. 1 North Carolina in the Quicken Loans Carrier Classic on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego (7 p.m., ESPN).
But not only will Dawson be in the starting lineup against the Tar Heels in one of the most historic games in college basketball, he’ll also be faced with the most difficult defensive assignment he’s likely to see all season in North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes.
“Coach (Tom) Izzo is throwing me in the fire,” Dawson said. “See if I’m ready. It’s a real big challenge.”
It’s a challenge not often delegated to a freshman playing his first game. But with Barnes, standing at 6-foot-8 and 215 pounds, Izzo said it made sense to put the ultra-athletic 6-foot-6 Dawson on him.
After averaging 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds as a freshman last season, Barnes comes into Friday’s game as preseason All-American for the second year in a row and is projected by many to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA Draft — if he decides to leave school early.
Dawson, who said he played with Barnes at the LeBron James Skills Academy when he was a sophomore in high school, said he understands all of the hype surrounding his defensive assignment.
“He’s very skillful, very active off the ball,” Dawson said. “He works hard on defense and offense. Basically, I just have to come in with a good mindset and be ready to play hard.”
According to Dawson, Izzo has done all that he can to make sure he plays as hard as possible against the Tar Heels, riding him in practice to prepare him for the tough task ahead. But that doesn’t bother Dawson.
“I was definitely ready for it,” Dawson said of Izzo’s intense coaching style. “When I came here, I thought he was a nice guy off the court. But once you get in practice, he’s all about business, staying focused and things like that.”
During exhibition play, Izzo said he would be giving Dawson some extra attention in practice leading up to today’s game. And although he said what he saw out of Dawson in the two exhibition wins was promising, he’ll need much more out of his freshman to be successful against Barnes.
“He had some moments where he was pretty good and some moments when he was in la-la land,” Izzo said after MSU’s 80-58 win over Hillsdale on Friday at Breslin Center. “But he has to get better ten-fold before next week.”
Izzo said he’s confident Dawson will give his best effort against Barnes because “he is a kid that is great at responding, and I love that about him.”
Senior forward Draymond Green, who has been working with Dawson on the floor and in the film room, said his new running mate needs to let his athleticism help him when defending Barnes. He also said he doesn’t expect Dawson to be overwhelmed by the big stage.
“I don’t think he’s the type of guy that you need to get going,” Green said. “He’s a competitor. His background, where he comes from, he was raised like that.”
As for how Dawson hopes to stop Barnes, he said his offense might be his best defense. If the two players match up when the Spartans have the ball, Dawson said he hopes to make life as tough on Barnes as Barnes likely will on him.
“It’s very important for me to work hard — come off ball screens and to run up the court,” Dawson said. “Basically, just get him tired and things like that.”