NEW YORK — Branden Dawson was on track to be the next Michigan State star when he arrived in East Lansing back in 2011. He was a five-star prospect, a top 20 recruit that Tom Izzo pulled out of Gary, IN. After an ACL injury at the end of his freshman season limited his development heading into his sophomore campaign, this year, his junior year, was supposed to be his time to shine.
Only … it wasn’t.
At times dominant and at times non-existent in the early part of the season, Dawson found himself struggling early on in Big Ten play when he broke a bone in his right hand, an injury that sent the Michigan State season into a tailspin. He missed nine games. The Spartans lost five of them, losing two of the first three games after he was able to return to the floor.
Something changed at the start of Big Ten play. After nearly three seasons of struggling to live up to the expectations that he had as a high schooler, Dawson’s turned in the best two weeks of basketball of his career. He averaged 15.0 points and 7.3 boards in three wins in Michigan State’s Big Ten tournament title run, and it didn’t stop there.
Dawson went for 24 points and 10 boards to lead No. 4 Michigan State to a 61-59 win over No. 1 Virginia in Friday night’s second East Regional semifinal. The Spartans will advance to face No. 7 seed UConn on Sunday, as the Huskies knocked off No. 3 Iowa State in the opener.
Dawson’s performance followed up the 26 points and nine boards he had as the Spartans held off No. 12 Harvard in the Round of 32. All told, since the start of tournament play, Dawson is averaging 17.5 points and 8.2 boards while shooting 69.7% from the field.
“I’m thinking about going and breaking my hand with the way that he’s playing right now,” junior guard Travis Trice said, chickling, after the game.
Dawson’s physicality and raw athleticism was a difference-maker for the Spartans, as he finished a handful of dunks around the rim in traffic. Virginia’s defense is as tough as any in the country, which is why Dawson’s play was so important. The Cavaliers had Michigan State scouted to perfection — as senior point guard Keith Appling put it, “Man, it was almost like they do every single play. They do where the ball was going before it got there.” — which limited what the Spartans were going to be able to get off of their sets.
In other words, as cliche as it may sound, the Spartans needed their playmakers to make plays, and Dawson played a vital role in the two most important buckets of the game.
Midway through the second half, after Michigan State had scored a pair of back-to-back buckets, Trice was able to leak out, getting himself free for one of the Spartan’s lone transition buckets: a deep, but open, three off the dribble on a 1-on-2 “break”. It capped a 7-0 spurt and came in the middle of a 13-2 run that turned a four-point deficit into a 49-42 lead. But the reason that Trice was able to get that shot was that Dawson corralled a rebound in the middle of three Virginia players, sparking the break with a perfect outlet.
“I’m happy got the rebound because I leaked out,” Trice said.
Virginia made their run, tying the game at 51 with less than two minutes left, but the Spartans responded. After Adreian Payne buried a three to put the Spartans up 54-51, he came back on the next possession and threw an alley-oop to Dawson, a pass that wasn’t exactly expected, as Dawson tells it.
“Honeslty I didn’t know Adreian Payne was going to throw it,” Dawson said with a laugh. “I just went up and caught the ball and tried to dunk it.”
The bucket put the Spartans up 56-51 and Virginia wouldn’t get the ball with a chance to tie the game again until there were just 1.4 seconds left on the clock.
Michigan State moves on, thanks to Dawson, and they’ll play Sunday for the right to play in the program’s first Final Four since 2010.
John Wooden will forever be associated with the UCLA program for what he did while coaching there.
10 national titles in 12 years, including seven in a row. Not bad, right?
What some people may forget is that before he got into coaching, Wooden was one of the best basketball players in the world. He played his collegiate ball at Purdue, where he was a three-time all-american and the 1932 National Player of the Year.
To honor Wooden’s legacy as one of the greatest Boilermakers ever, Purdue built a statue of Wooden and unveiled it in front of Mackey Arena this weekend:
“Not many people think of Johnny Wooden as a Boilermaker, but when I got here in 1957, some of the old-timers still remembered him as a player,” Jim Hicks, the alumnus that donated the statue, said. “I’m so delighted that people will see this statue and read his Pyramid of Success because I think the pyramid was his most important contribution.”
One of the neat touches of the statue: Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is right there for all to see.
North Carolina picked up their third commitment in the Class of 2017 on Monday in big man Brandon Huffman.
A four-star prospect who will play his final season of high school ball at Word of God Academy in North Carolina, Huffman’s strength at this point in his development is as a defensive presence around the basket. He stands 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and should be able to help replace Kennedy Meeks, who graduates this spring.
Huffman’s development on the offensive end of the floor isn’t quite there yet. A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Huffman is still learning how to be more influential on that end.
Huffman joins Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek in UNC’s 2017 class.
VCU landed their third commitment in the Class of 2017 over the weekend, as 6-foot-8 forward Sean Mobley announced that he will play his college ball for the Rams.
A three-star prospect, Mobley is a nice program piece for the Rams. He’s not an overpowering athlete or a menace on the low block, but he is good rebounder, a guy that can space the floor with his jump shot and a smart player that should be able to find and fit into a role.
Mobley picked VCU over Dayton and West Virginia, joining top 75 point guard and big man Marcus Santos-Silva in Will Wade’s recruiting class.
Beginning in September and running up until November 11th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Non-conference scheduling has rightfully been much maligned in recent years with many programs opting to keep their non-league slates as a tune-up rather than a challenge, but there are still plenty of gems out there in the season’s first two months. Neutral-site event games again provide some of the strongest matchups, but there are plenty of on-campus contests that will be among the year’s best as well.
THE TOP 15
1. Kansas vs. Duke – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (9 p.m.): The Champions Classic has easily become the most anticipated non-conference event most years (until the PK80 next year), and this year’s matchup between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils is the premier non-conference game of the season. Both teams return a ton from last year’s successful seasons and also add stellar recruiting classes. It’s not hard to envision this as a Final Four or national title preview, and there’s a very real chance that it could end up being a matchup between No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Kansas.
2. Michigan State at Duke – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9:30 p.m.): This game gets the nod over similarly interesting matchups because it’s going to be played on campus in Durham at Cameron Indoor. It pits two Hall of Fame coaches operating near the height of their powers with teams expected to contend for a national championship. It’s sure to be an electric evening.
3. Kentucky at Louisville – Dec. 21 (7 p.m.): John Calipari has another powerhouse on his hands while Rick Pitino’s squad is expected to continue its upward progression and be a potential top-10 team. This in-state rivalry game will have all the gravitas it normally has along with the national implications that come when two potential No. 1 seeds meet in the non-conference.
4. Kansas at Kentucky – Jan. 28 (6 p.m.): The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is largely irrelevant this season because the Big 12 is down and the SEC looks like a mid-major conference outside of Kentucky. But the Wildcats, who nearly beat Kansas in overtime in Phog Allen last season, and the Jayhawks are both preseason top five teams loaded with NBA talent and positioned to make a run towards another national title.
5. Michigan State vs. Kentucky – Champions Classic (New York) – Nov. 15 (7 p.m.): The other half of the Champions Classic, the Spartans and Wildcats will provide nearly just as much entertainment. The matchup between Michigan State’s super-recruit Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s squadron of them could be the highlight of the night.
6. Virginia at Villanova – Jan. 28 – (1 p.m.): Virginia deserves credit as one of the elite programs that’s unafraid to challenge themselves with home-and-home series, but I can’t imagine that, when Tony Bennett signed up for this, he knew he’d be taking his team on the road, in the middle of ACC play, to square off with the reigning national champs. It will be an intriguing matchup of styles, both in terms of basketball and the suits worn by the opposing head coaches.
7. UCLA at Kentucky – Dec. 3 (12:30 p.m.): Two of the most storied programs in the sport, the Bruins and Wildcats both figure to have interesting seasons as Steve Alford looks to satiate uneasy UCLA fans and Calipari looks to add another national championship to his resume. UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball facing off against Kentucky’s backcourt in Rupp Arena will garner a lot of headlines. And we shouldn’t forget that the Bruins picks off Kentucky in LA last December.
8. North Carolina vs. Kentucky – Las Vegas – Dec. 17 (5:45 p.m.): UNC is coming off a season where they finished as the national runners-up. Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson will hurt, no doubt, but there is still some talent on the roster. Kentucky, as we’ve mentioned, is once again loaded. Both teams will likely be ranked in the top-10 when they meet in Sin City in yet another clash of the sport’s heavyweights.
9. Michigan State vs. Arizona – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (7 p.m.): Not a bad way to tip off the season with the Spartans and Wildcats squaring off in Hawaii on opening night. The game was originally to be played at Pearl Harbor, but was moved to the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii. Arizona may have lost Terrence Ferguson to the pros, but it’ll have plenty of firepower to match up against Michigan State with Allonzo Trier, Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Atkins.
10. Louisville vs. Indiana – Indianapolis – Dec. 31 (12:30 p.m.): This border battle game will be played off-campus at the home of the Pacers, but with Indy’s close proximity to both schools and a pair of fervent fanbases, this one should have that big-time collegiate feel with two top-15 teams.
11. Kansas vs. Indiana – Armed Forces Classic (Honolulu) – Nov. 11 (9 p.m.): The nightcap of the Armed Forces Classic is another incredibly strong game that will pit the two midwestern powers against each other. Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby will provide quite the test for Kansas’ revamped frontcourt while the Hoosiers will have to contend with one of the country’s strongest backcourts in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham.
12. Wisconsin at Creighton – Gavitt Games – Nov. 15 (8:30 p.m.): The country knows how strong the Badgers will be this year after the transition to coach Greg Gard propelled them into the Sweet 16, but Creighton is flying a bit under the radar despite having some top-level talent in Mo Watson and Marcus Foster. The Blue Jays also have one of the more underrated home crowds in the game. This one will be a treat in the season’s opening week.
13. Arizona vs. Gonzaga – Naismith Memorial HOF Game (Los Angeles) – Dec. 3 (6:30 p.m.): Two West Coast powers face off in L.A. a month into the season with perhaps a seed line at stake. Gonzaga will likely open the season in the top-15 on the strength of getting senior center Przmek Karnowski back and the Nigel Williams-Goss eligible after transferring from Washington.
t-14. North Carolina at Indiana – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30 (9 p.m.)
t-14. Syracuse at Wisconsin – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 29 (9 p.m.): The ACC/Big Ten Challenge provides two more top games with the Tar Heels visiting Bloomington and the Badgers hosting the Orange. The Bryant-Kennedy Meeks matchup will be one to watch, while NBA scouts and draftniks will be tuning in to this one to see how Tyler Lydon and Nigel Hayes matchup. The game itself will provide college hoops fans plenty with the Badgers being a Big Ten favorite and Syracuse bolstering its ranks with Nebraska graduate transfer Andrew White.
15. Washington at Gonzaga – Dec. 7 (11 p.m.): The Huskies aren’t a lock to make the NCAA tournament this year, but this game will still be a must-watch thanks to Gonzaga’s strength, Markelle Fultz’s talent and it being an in-state rivalry game played on campus. Don’t underestimate how much these two fanbases dislike each other.
16. UConn vs. Syracuse – New York City – Dec. 5 (7 p.m.): Madison Square Garden will play host to this former Big East rivalry game. This is the loudest you’ll hear the Garden all season long, and that includes the games that the Knicks play. 17. Valparaiso at Oregon – Nov. 17 (9 p.m.): Valpo might be the best mid-major in the country and has a potential All-American in Alec Peters. The Ducks may not have Dillon Brooks for this one, but will still likely be ranked in the top-10. 18. Indiana vs Butler – Crossroads Classic – Dec. 17 (5 p.m.): A Hoosier State rivalry game that’s sure to be closely contested. 19. Villanova vs. Notre Dame – Never Forget Games (Newark, N.J.) – 12 p.m.: The defending champs take on one of the ACC’s best. 20. Purdue at Louisville – ACC/Big Ten Challenge – Nov. 30: Another strong game courtesy of the cross-conference challenge. 21. Villanova at Purdue – Nov. 14 (7 p.m.): This game got more difficult for the ‘Cats without Omari Spellman to combat Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. 22. Northern Iowa vs. Xavier – Nov. 16 (12 p.m.): A sneaky-strong game with Xavier being a team that figures to push Villanova in the Big East and the Panthers featuring potential MVC player of the year Jeremy Morgan. 23. Oregon at Baylor – Nov. 15 (3:30 p.m.): This will be the Ducks’ only true road game in the non-conference. Baylor’s Johnathan Motley figures to be a tough guard for the Pac-12 favorites. 24. Arizona vs. Texas A&M – Dec 17 (1 p.m.): The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s team, but will still be a top-25 contender. 25. Florida State at Florida – Dec. 11 (4 p.m.): The Seminoles will bring quite a bit of talent with them to Gainesville in Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac for this intrastate rivalry game.