Branden Dawson Is Michigan State's Mystery Man

Jason Franchuk@@harkthefranchukCollege Basketball Featured ColumnistApril 2, 2015

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To his Michigan State teammates, Branden Dawson is Superman.

It's the way he swoops in to save the day that has earned him the nickname. It's the way he deflects constant bullets of critique from the coaching staff. It's the way he inspires the basketball Metropolis that is East Lansing. A hell of a talent, a joy of a friend.

His coaches see Superman, too, but they also see their worst nightmare. They know they can never go into a game fully confident he'll make it out of the phone booth.

Branden Dawson MSU stats
Source: Sports-Reference.com

Dawson's numbers are up, as are the maturity and energy he's brought in his senior season. But even wearing a "What's Your Why?" wristband given to him by freshman Tum Tum Nairn Jr., the 6'6" power forward remains the biggest question facing coach Tom Izzo and his staff heading into every game.

Will the best bring his best?

The more the Spartans know, sometimes, the less they understand.

"The best way to explain it is that 60 percent for some is a lot of other peoples' 100 percent," Michigan State assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said. "If we can get Branden to that 100 percent all of the time, he's unstoppable."

That's the refrain with those who have tried to shape Dawson as a player.

Mark Montgomery, who recruited him to Michigan State and is now head coach at Northern Illinois, said when he watches Dawson on TV, what he sees is a player with "no frickin' ceiling."

But the compliment comes with a caveat.

"When I watch him from afar, sometimes I'm frustrated," Montgomery said. "Sometimes I'm not. He needs to play every play like it's his last play. I don't know if he always does that.

"Branden plays very unselfish. He's a winner. But he can impact the game so much more sometimes."

Montgomery, like many interviewed about Dawson, said he didn't want to be part of a story that's "too negative." He was careful, taking a long pause before answering the next question: Has he lived up to his abilities? 

"No, Branden probably hasn't," he says. "He could be a double-double guy."

He just wants to see more.

Dawson admits he was a problem child growing up in the rough town of Gary, Indiana, where athletic talent habitually gets twisted sideways by life. 

His mother, Cassandra, said she was concerned about a boy who could've gone down the wrong path for good. There were suspensions at school, and the way he treated family at home wasn't much better.

For some, that may be just the rebelliousness of youth. But Cassandra saw something with far worse consequences. She knew it was critical to get him involved in something away from the streets. The game of basketball came naturally to him, so she pushed him to pursue that.

"Once upon a time I told him, 'Just take it one day at a time,'" she said. "Do the best you can."

The result? Branden summed it up bluntly to The Times of Northwest Indiana's Steve Hanlon in 2009: "If it wasn't for basketball, I'd probably be in prison," he said.

Even when it came to basketball, MSU assistant Mike Garland hinted that Dawson didn't always set himself up for success, nor did he play as hard as he could have. That's not unusual for a player with his talent; it's just human nature

But Renaldo Thomas, who coached him at Lew Wallace, refutes that concept. He raves about Dawson, who he said innately understands the game, whether it's playing defense or running the floor.

Dawson once posted 37 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals as a high school sophomore. Thomas started calling him "Awesome Dawson."

"His coming-out party," Thomas said. "He understands this. Big-time players make big-time plays. He's got that in his DNA."

Even with such obvious talent, Dawson's relationship with basketball hasn't always been easy. Those with the most potential are often the ones who can't seem to satisfy anyone.

When he was 16, Cassandra says, he etched a tattoo onto his right shoulder—a basketball with four provocative words: "God's Gift" and "My curse."

He's since had the tattoo covered up. He said the decision to do so had nothing to do with how he felt about life or ball—that it was just a bad-looking tattoo. He now views the curse as a blessing.

"Basketball's brought me a long way," he says.

Dawson had similar words on Sunday as he proudly wore a regional championship hat after Michigan State's win over Louisville.

"It's been a long journey."

Friday's Final Four appearance against Duke isn't the final destination he's hoping for in that journey, but you can forgive him for taking the opportunity to appreciate all he's been through.

Spartans assistant coach Dane Fife said it's been four headstrong years for Dawson at Michigan State, and Izzo hasn't let up on Dawson one bit during that time.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 28:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans talks with Branden Dawson #22 against the Virginia Cavaliers during the regional semifinal of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 2014
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Dawson takes it to heart. He had 11 rebounds Sunday, and what did he have to say about them after the game? "Coach is always saying I should've had 20."

Dawson has admitted his relationship with Izzo had him considering transferring as a freshman. He was even closer as a sophomore, Cassandra said, when he was frustrated by his recovery from a torn ACL.

Cassandra says the coach and player were constantly "bumping heads." He broke his hand last season after slamming it on a table while coaches picked him apart in film study.

"He was frustrated with being chastised in front of peers," Cassandra said.

She says she would've let her son transfer—quit. But she saw the coach's side of it, too.

"I'd tell him, 'He sees the good potential in you that you don't see. You're just being stubborn,'" she said.

It takes a lot to be a senior and a leader under a coach like Izzo. His teammates unanimously agree that Dawson takes more grief than anyone. In a strange way, they admire how their teammate is strong enough to handle the attention.

"Izzo obviously expects a lot out of him," teammate Kenny Goins said. "Props to Branden for taking it for four years."

Last weekend's two games summed up Dawson's career nicely: an apology after the first game and an incredible follow-up shot to clinch the second. 

Dawson played so tepid Friday night in the Sweet 16 against Oklahoma, he spent five minutes apologizing to teammates—as CBS cameras were rolling—in the locker room after the win.

Izzo cherished that mea culpa, Fife said, and Sunday morning he declared in front of the team he'd never question Dawson's commitment again.

But you still have to wonder about his decision-making once in a while.

Twice in the second half against Louisville—when the Spartans needed his experience to show—Dawson threw passes right to Terry Rozier, who turned them into four easy Cardinal points.

But then Dawson turned around and made the play of the game—the highlight of his career. 

He dribbled hard into the lane with 30 seconds left and the Spartans up two in overtime. Two defenders swarmed him, so he made the perfect decision by passing to Bryn Forbes. Forbes missed a three-pointer from the corner, but Dawson strapped on his cape. He found open ground, leapt high and banked the rebound into the basket before returning to the Carrier Dome floor. 

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Michigan State coaches and Montgomery said it was classic Dawson: a stealth rebounder with incredible agility and leaping ability. He was in attack mode, fueled by the purest forms of energy and instinct.

Forbes saw even deeper meaning.

"That was perfect B.J.," he said. "That's what I think of when I think of him. He was there for me. He was there for us."

If only it were always that simple.

Dawson's performances against the Final Four field are perplexing.

He had a big game against Duke in November (18 points, nine rebounds). In Michigan State's first game against Wisconsin, he had four points and two rebounds. The second one, the Big Ten championship loss in overtime, produced middle ground: 16 points and seven rebounds on 7-of-12 shooting.

So, as always, the question this weekend is which Dawson will show up.

"We need him to be Superman," Izzo told reporters leading up to that first Duke game. 

He could be that. Or he could have to apologize. He might feel Izzo's wrath. You just never know.

"We've asked a lot of him," Fife said Sunday.

Then Fife paused. His eyes darted around a giddy locker room as he searched for the right thing to say. The Spartans wouldn't be going to Indianapolis without Dawson, but they need more from him if they're going to go further.

"I don't think it's a matter of Branden not trying. I think it's a matter of Branden being human as well," he added. "And us having to come to grips with he's not Superman.

"But at the same time, he can be Superman for 35 minutes."

Jason Franchuk covered BYU basketball for the Provo (Utah) Daily Herald for 11 years, including all of "Jimmer Mania," and now resides in Albany, New York. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.