March 20, 2013

NCAA: Dawson ready to explode?

EAST LANSING - You still have to figure that sophomore wing Branden Dawson is due to break out of his scoring slump as he nears the one-year anniversary of the knee surgery he needed to repair the torn left ACL he suffered in Michigan State's regular season finale last season.

While MSU coach Tom Izzo has talked about the wait for the 6-foot-6 Dawson to regain the explosiveness and jumping ability he displayed last season, no one would have a problem with that wait if Dawson displayed that freakish athleticism and more statistical production during the Spartans' run in the NCAA Tournament.

MSU is set to begin play in the second round of the Big Dance as a No.3 seed that will open against No. 14 seeded Valparaiso at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

And you have to figure that if Dawson can get over the rest of the mental tentativeness that comes with regaining the confidence in a surgically-repaired knee, that MSU's chances of making a deep run in the Tournament would be greatly enhanced.

"As far as now, I can see some different changes in my body physically. Now. it's like the starting time for a new year. I'm definitely more excited about this (NCAA Tournament) because now I now I'll have the chance to play in this one with my teammates. People would say, 'oh, I'm sorry you missed out,' and that was kind of hard, especially watching them play, while I was at the hotel with my family. But now, knowing that I'll get to play with these guys, the adrenaline, it just motivates me more and more.''

Dawson also admitted that it took him awhile to get over the added disappointment of having to sit and watch his teammates on TV during last season's NCAA run. Almost as if he let them down by getting injured.

"It was definitely difficult for me sitting at home watching those guys play on TV but the first game I was at when they played LIU-Brooklyn, that was a good experience because I learned certain things. But it was hard seeing them play against Louisville and losing. Now I'm going to get a chance to play and it's very exciting, knowing I can actually help my teammates out.''

Of course, it's not like the former McDonald's All-American had an extremely disappointing year this season.

He enters the postseason with a respectable 9.4 points and six rebounds a game.

And he has shown signs, all season long, of becoming that X-factor that could help push MSU over the top in tough matchups.

He had 16 double-figure scoring outings and five double-figure rebounding performances.

But in his last eight games, he hasn't scored more than eight points in any of those outings and in three of those contests, finished with just two points despite playing 19 minutes or more in each game.

Still, despite his recent anemic offensive output, Dawson feels he's on the brink of something special and part of that may be due to the excitement he feels about actually getting to participate in his first NCAA Tournament.

"In practice, I can just feel it. It's March Madness time. It's tournament time. I just to have to stop thinking so much. Coach G (Mike Garland) was saying relax because I was thinking too much. He was helping me out and sending me bible scriptures and telling me to just free my mind. I read one before practice and it got me motivated and got me going.''

FIRST TIMER: On the eve of his first-ever NCAA Tournament, freshman guard Denzel Valentine sounded pretty calm about what was ahead of him as the Spartans prepared for the ultimate one-and-done play.

But he was quick to point out that despite the reminders to keep routines and approaches the same, there is a different vibe as MSU preps for NCAA play.

"Things are cracking down. Coach (Izzo) is a little more intense, things are a little bit more intense and I understand that because it's such a big stage and the goal with all of these Final Fours around here is that we settle for nothing less. So I expect everybody to be focused in more and be more excited for this time of year.''

While Valentine may have been a bit more prepared for the rise in intensity because he is the son of a father who also played basketball at MSU, he sensed the intensity level and urgency of the season long before the Spartans received their first NCAA assignment.

"As soon as the Big Ten Tournament started they started cracking down. We started coming in the gym more and doing more stuff with scouting and practicing.''

Since this will be his first experience in an NCAA Tournament environment, Denzel Valentine didn't hesitate to lean on his father Carlton about how to go about your business as a young player during such a pressure-packed time of the season.

"He just said don't change what you do. Be the same player because that's what got you here. What you need to do is just tighten down on the mistakes and focus in a little bit more on the defensive end. And when you get out there, don't be nervous and just play it like it's another game. This is one-and-done time and it's going to be more intense but just be relaxed and come in and play how you play.''

Seems like great advice but the younger Valentine, who was a starter earlier in the season and enters the NCAA foray averaging 5.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists as a reserve role. But he made a confession about what he expected from himself those first few minutes on Thursday.

"I'm sure butterflies will pop up so I've just got to take deep breaths and I'll be cool.''

PHILOSOPHICALLY SPEAKING: Sophomore guard Travis Trice was in the same place a year ago that Valentine is in right now.

Battling emotions, uncertainty, fear and nerves.

But what a difference a year makes.

Trice has even been helpful in trying to get first-year teammates Valentine, Gary Harris and Matt Costello in the right frame of mind for the chaos that can be the NCAA Tournament.

"I've told them, initially, you've got to take it in and enjoy it because you don't know if you're going to be back here ever again. But at the same time, you've got to approach it like every other game. You can't get too emotional with it because then you're not playing your game and you lose. So just approach it like every other game but know that this is a different level.''

After averaging 17 minutes a game in three NCAA Tourney appearances in 2012, where he totaled four points, seven rebounds, three steals and two assists, it's obvious that the Ohio native expects to provide the Spartans with a higher quality of postseason play starting on Thursday against the Crusaders.

"I think you look at it with a broader horizon now because before you're just really concentrating on yourself and now you see the whole picture of everything. It was kind of hard last year to focus in because you were like, 'man, I'm here, really here,' (especially) after growing up and watching it on TV all of the time. So that first time, you're saying, 'this is crazy, I'm actually here.' But now, after going through it for a year, it's all about business.''

This season, despite some health setbacks - a preseason virus and two bouts with head injuries that cost him a total of nine games - Trice has rounded back into shape just in time for the postseason, averaging 4.8 points, two assists and 1.5 assists off the bench.

He is contributing almost 19 minutes a game off the bench, which could be key if starting junior point guard Keith Appling needs some relief or gets into foul trouble.

As for his scouting report concerning Valpo, Trice sums things up like this:

"They're an older team. They start five seniors and they've got like two fifth-year seniors. So we know they're an older team, you know they're going to execute down the stretch and they can shoot.''

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