EAST LANSING, Mich. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has not been quite sure how to approach small forward Branden Dawson this season.
How far do you push an athlete coming back from anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery? Thats a slippery slope for a coach to navigate. But Izzo decided to prod Dawson after a lackluster first half Saturday against Purdue, and Dawson responded in a big way to lead the Spartans to victory.
Dawson had four points and three rebounds in the first half, but came back to finish with 14 points and 11 rebounds for his first double-double since the season opener with Connecticut in Germany.
The injury has bothered the kid, Izzo said. He just hasnt come backThe second half, I think he just decided to let it go. And I dont think its physically hindering him. But like people tell me, theres a mental hindrance to serious injuries like that. And I think B.J. played at a different energy level in the second half.
I dont think he necessarily played that much better; I just think he was always around the ball because he played at a different energy level. I was really pleased with him, and told him before the game and told him after the game that thats the way hes got to play. But its hard to push a guy when you dont know how much is injury, and how much is laziness or inept. And thats a very delicate area right now for me.
Izzo cried with Dawson, nicknamed B.J., in the Breslin Center trainers room when MSU trainer Quinton Sawyer delivered the news of the severity of the ligament tear caused in a knee-to-knee collision March 4 against Ohio State in the regular season finale.
Dawson feared his career might be over or wouldnt be what it could be, and the tears streaming down his coachs face left an impression. It was an emotional time the two of them continue coping with.
Freshman Gary Harris saw the need to say something during the game and ignited Dawson.
Dawson said, Gary said, We need you to play hard. I have to stop thinking so much and just play the game. Were capable of doing great things on this team. We have great playersand our chemistry has come along.
The No. 18 Spartans (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) travel to Iowa (11-4, 0-2) for a game at 7 p.m. Thursday night on ESPN2. Dawson is averaging 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds for slight increases over his 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds as a freshman.
The Spartans havent been quite sure how to react to what Izzo termed a freakish comeback that put Dawson ahead of schedule. MSU assistant coach Mike Garland added, The cast came off and the leg did not atrophy! It was amazing.
The coaching staff wanted to push Dawson. But what if his hesitance wasnt mental, and he wasnt ready to go hard? What if he re-injured the knee? And so Izzo and his staff walked on eggshells with him. However, those days of easing off on Dawson could be just about over.
I was fatigued earlier, Dawson said. Now Im getting my wind up. Im feeling great.
Dawson, a McDonalds All-America from Gary (Ind.) Lew Wallace High, averaged 28.7 points, 18.6 rebounds and 5.6 points as a senior. Izzo expects greatness from his 6-foot-6 swingman.
I came out with a lot of intensity in the second half, Dawson said of the Purdue game. Now I have to keep up that intensity.
Dawson is averaging 26.6 minutes per game, trailing only starting guards Keith Appling (33.0) and Harris (26.8) in playing time. And, aside from being winded earlier, hes said nothing about the knee is bothering him. It seems like the time to let it all hang out is now, and the second half against the Boilermakers was a good start in that regard.
Harris, who prompted Dawson to push himself, said, He played with tremendous energy, and we all followed him.