Usually, when you think about the Michigan State Spartans and you think about offensive production, the name Adreian Payne comes to mind. After all, it was Payne who averaged 16.7 points per game, just barely behind Gary Harris (16.9) for the team lead this season. And it was Payne who scored a whopping 41 points in the Spartans’ second-round NCAA tournament win over the Delaware Blue Hens on Thursday.
But on Saturday night, with Payne limited to 10 points on just 4-for-12 shooting from the field, the Spartans needed someone else to step up if they were going to hold off the upset bid of Ivy League champion Harvard. Into the fray stepped 6-foot-6 guard-forward Branden Dawson, who had his best game of the season as Michigan State pulled away late to eliminate Harvard 80-73 in the East Regional. Michigan State will play either Memphis or top-seeded Virginia in the Sweet 16 next week.
Like Payne, Dawson also missed some games this year, in his case, a pretty good chunk of the Big 10 season. The Spartans (28-8) went 4-5 in those nine games and at no point during that stretch was Michigan State able to win back-to-back games. Since Dawson returned against Illinois on March 1, Michigan State is 6-2, won the Big 10 tournament, and now has won two NCAA tournament games. Dawson started slow upon his return, scoring just 20 points total in his first three games back.
Then, the Big 10 tournament began and Dawson got hot. Dawson averaged 15 points per game in Michigan State’s three-game run to the title, scoring 15 on 7-for-8 shooting in the championship game victory over Michigan. He had 10 against Delaware, but against Harvard on Saturday, Dawson went off for 26 points and nine rebounds on 12-for-15 shooting — by far the best game of the season for the junior from Gary, Ind.
Having multiple weapons like Payne, Dawson and Harris (18 points Saturday) make Michigan State a very tough team to derail on the way to the Final Four. The Spartans will face a contrast of styles depending on which team they face next. If it’s Memphis, it will be a fast-paced game where Michigan State’s top players might get plenty of shots. If it’s Virginia, the best defensive team in the country, possessions will be few and far between and there will be a higher value placed on field goal percentage. Led by Dawson, the Spartans shot 49 percent from the field Saturday, always a respectable number for an NCAA tournament game.
While inconsistency and injuries have plagued Michigan State for much of the season, a healthy Payne and Dawson, combined with Harris’ ability to score, make the Spartans a very tough out as we reach the business end of the Big Dance.