The senior duo first met in seventh grade as Amateur Athletic Union teammates.
On Wednesday, their basketball careers will come full circle as the Spartans (19-10 overall, 10-6 Big Ten) , will host Purdue (19-10, 11-5) on senior night.
“Just over the past few years, watching the other guys on their senior night, the former players, and now it’s our turn,” Dawson said after practice on Monday. “It’s definitely real. We’ve had a long journey, a lot of memories in this place. It’s really hard to believe.”
Dawson, an ESPN four-star recruit coming out of high school, said he was surprised and pleased when Trice, a three-star recruit, emerged as a surprise signing by MSU in 2010.
“When I made my decision, when I committed and I found out that Travis committed too, I think I just texted him and I was like wow, we’re going to be playing on the same team in college,” Dawson said. “He was happy, his family was happy, I was happy. Our AAU coach, he was happy for us, and everyone else was too.”
Men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said Dawson and Trice have both exceeded expectations at MSU, especially considering their injury history.
Dawson tore his ACL at the end of the 2012 season, but returned after just seven months of recovery. He missed nine games during his junior season with a broken hand.
“I think we’ve learned in pro football and basketball, you don’t come back from (ACL injuries), most human beings don’t come back in seven, eight months,” Izzo said. “No human being comes back and performs even at the level he did, but considering what he missed, that was that year.
“The junior year he had the early injury, then he had the broken hand, then he finished very strong in that year. And his senior year he’s been pretty doggone good considering another hand injury, and a bad game.”
Izzo said he recruited Trice to be more of a backup point guard. Despite Trice’s numerous injuries — two concussions, a brain infection, a back injury, a groin injury and a rib injury — that have caused him to miss two summers, he has performed well this season as both a starter and sixth man.
“I wish those two summers he would have been healthy because I think we could have got him stronger,” Izzo said. “And I think that’s the only thing maybe that’s been a setback for him. But he is definitely playing his best basketball end of his senior year and nothing gets better than that.”
It’s been a long journey for Trice, but he said there’s no use crying over spilled milk regarding his injury history. As a guy who didn’t have a lot of major offers before MSU came along, he is appreciative of his opportunity.
“I just look back on the things I got to do,” Trice said. “I got to play in Madison Square Garden five or six times, lost count. Played on an aircraft carrier, played overseas in Germany. Met the President. Had countless big games, played in every big venue you can think of. It’s been enjoyable, and I’m definitely going to miss it.”
Entering Wednesday’s game, the Spartans are in a three-way tie for fourth place in a competitive Big Ten race with Ohio State and Iowa. Purdue is in third place, and MSU can move into a tie for third with a victory.
Trice said he expects Purdue to compete, especially coming off a close loss against Ohio State Sunday night.
“I’m going to expect them to come in and honestly try and ruin our party,” Trice said. “That’s the way they’ve been playing all year. They’re a talented group, they have a lot of guys and they play extremely hard.”
The Boilermakers had won eight of their previous nine games before Sunday’s loss. It’ll be another tough matchup for MSU’s big men, as Purdue junior center A.J. Hammons is the Big Ten’s best shot blocker averaging 2.9 per contest.
Izzo complimented Purdue head coach Matt Painter for Purdue’s proficiency in the post.
“He’s done a great job with his big guys,” Izzo said. “Take Hammons, that’s a great example of a motor guy, or non motor guy. And it’s been a fist fight for three years, and it looks like the lights going on. Even this year he’s only started six of his 16 Big Ten games. But he is definitely playing better.”
Senior forward Branden Dawson has struggled in his last couple games, but Purdue could help the senior forward get back on track. Dawson traditionally has played extremely well against the Boilermakers, averaging 15.8 points, seven rebounds and 1.3 blocks in four career games against the team from his home state of Indiana.
Dawson said he doesn’t know why he always plays well against Purdue, but on senior night, the odds could be in his favor once again. He’ll try to channel one of the best players in the conference, a player who recently burned the Spartans on his own senior night.
“Purdue, they’re a great program,” Dawson said. “I’ve always played well against Purdue but I know they’re going to come here ready to play. Come senior night, I just have to have a (Frank) Kaminsky performance.”
Now or never
Losers of two consecutive games, Wednesday’s game against Purdue and Saturday’s road game against Indiana could possibly make or break MSU’s NCAA tournament candidacy.
Izzo doesn’t want to use the NCAA tournament as a motivator just yet.
“This team, maybe does not handle certain pressures as well,” Izzo said. “I don’t know why. You guys said it early. Why did we play better on the road than at home? I’m not sure we did. I think some teams played pretty well here ... We don’t have enough depth to overcome certain things. That’s the biggest thing with this year’s team.”
Ideally, the Spartans would be in a situation where the Big Ten tournament would be an afterthought at this point in the season. But with 19 wins and 10 losses in conference play, MSU not only needs to close the regular season out strong, but make a splash in Chicago next week.
The Big Ten tournament begins Wednesday, March 11 but the Spartans don’t know if they will be one of the top four teams, earning them a first round bye until Thursday. MSU could find themselves as high as a three seed in the tournament or as low as an eight seed.
“You try not to pay attention to that stuff and just focus on the game, but I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t know what was going on outside of here,” Trice said. “Our thing is we just have to try and win and go on a roll going into the Big Ten Tournament.
“Right now, can’t win the Big Ten championship so now our thing is getting a seed where we can set ourselves up for being successful in he Big Ten Tournament. That means winning these last two games.”