Michigan State v Virginia

Branden Dawson leads No. 4 Michigan State past No. 1 Virginia, into the Elite 8

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Michigan State v Virginia

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.

No. 14 West Virginia takes care of No. 15 Baylor

West Virginia forward Devin Williams (41) dunks the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor, Saturday, Feb, 6, 2016, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
AP Photo/Raymond Thompson
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Not exactly noted for their ability to knock down shots from the perimeter, No. 14 West Virginia grabbed sole possession of first place in the Big 12 thanks in part to their perimeter shooting. The Mountaineers shot 7-for-14 from three and 49.1 percent from the field in a 80-69 win over No. 15 Baylor that wasn’t as close as the final margin would lead one to believe.

Bob Huggins’ team led by as much as 19 in the second half, and the way in which they did it is what makes the win so impressive. “Press Virginia” yielded just ten Baylor turnovers, but that low number didn’t matter much thanks to West Virginia’s execution offensively.

They found quality looks against Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone in the first half and made them at a good clip, forcing Scott Drew to switch to man-to-man. That change didn’t do much to slow down West Virginia either, as Daxter Miles Jr. scored 20 points and sixth man Jaysean Paige added 17 off the bench. And with Devin Williams chipping in with 16 points and seven boards in the post, outplaying Baylor’s Rico Gathers Sr. (five points, seven rebounds), West Virginia grabbed control of the game in the first half and did not relinquish it.

The usual formula for West Virginia offensively is to attack the offensive glass, as their offensive rebounding percentage (43 percent) is tops in the country. “Their best offense is a missed shot” is a familiar refrain heard when people discuss the Mountaineers, who entered the game shooting just over 30 percent from three.

They didn’t need to lean on those second chances as heavily as they normally do Saturday night, not only because of the improved accuracy but also the improved work in finding shots. The ball moved against the Baylor defense and so did the players, resulting in an offensive attack that proved tougher for the visiting Bears to stop that one would expect given the statistics entering the game.

West Virginia was already established as a contender in the Big 12, but thanks to their win Saturday night the Mountaineers are the current pace setters. With a showdown at No. 7 Kansas set for Tuesday night, this was a big win for Bob Huggins’ team to get. And with it coming in spite of a low turnover (forced) count, this should only help West Virginia in the confidence department moving forward.

No. 22 Indiana falls at Penn State

Penn State's Shep Garner (33) moves towards the basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana in State College, Pa., Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
(AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
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Brendan Taylor scored 24 points to lead Penn State to a 68-63 upset of No. 22 Indiana on Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions were 2-8 in Big Ten play entering the weekend. Indiana? They were 9-1 and tied for first in the conference. It’s the second loss in four games for the Hoosiers following a 7-0 start to Big Ten play, a fact made all the more concerning by the fact that their league schedule is finally about to get difficult.

The Hoosiers play No. 5 Iowa at home and No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing next week. The following week they get No. 18 Purdue at home. In the final week of the regular season, Indiana squares off with No. 5 Iowa on the road and close the regular season with a visit from No. 4 Maryland.

That’s a lot of good teams that the Hoosiers to close out the year.

The question has been asked since Indiana’s hot start to league play: Are they for real? Did the Hoosiers really somehow turn things around defensively, or was that winning streak simply a by-product of their schedule?

The truth is that it was probably a combination of both. Calling them a fraud would be unjust — if you watched those games, there wasn’t much fluky about them; Indiana earned the Ws — but it does seem fair to say this is something of a regression to the mean.

They were going to slip up eventually.

And it will totally be forgotten if the Hoosiers can find a way to close the regular season with a winning record in their final seven games.