When MSU lost back-to-back games at Northwestern and Michigan in January, who thought the loss of Branden Dawson would look crippling to MSU fans? And who thought the biggest reason could be because of his defense?
But with Dawson tearing his ACL in Sunday's loss to Ohio State, MSU's expectations have changed in the eyes of many. Dawson had become an elite rebounder and solid defender. He was playing good defense on Ohio State's William Buford, who scored 21 of his 25 points after Dawson left the game. It was going to be fun to see what Dawson could do in the open NCAA tournament, but we're going to have to wait another season for that.
Before we look ahead to what this means for Dawson's career, let's look at the effects on MSU's 2012 season.
In losing Dawson, MSU loses the tall, athletic wing player the Spartans were missing last season. Raymar Morgan was always underrated throughout his career for his matchup ability. In Dawson, MSU had its new Morgan, but with more athleticism. Statistically, MSU must replace its No. 2 rebounder and No. 3 scorer, as Dawson averaged 8.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Most notable of those stats is Dawson's offensive rebounding. An incredible 48 percent of Dawson's rebounds came on the offensive end. He had the same number of offensive rebounds as Draymond Green, while playing nearly 400 less minutes on the floor. MSU had just six offensive rebounds Sunday, while Ohio State had 11. Derrick Nix and Adriean Payne must step up in that aspect of their play.
What I expect to happen is that Austin Thornton will move over to the three spot, and Brandon Wood will move back into the starting lineup as the shooting guard. Thornton has seen a good amount of time at small forward when Dawson has been on the bench. Wood has scored at least seven points in three of the last four games and had 15 points Sunday — a season-high for him in Big Ten play. He came to MSU to play in a postseason, and that time has arrived.
As for other players, Brandan Kearney might be the backup at the three spot now. He has the length, but the difference is the strength. Dawson outweighs Kearney by 35 pounds. Even Thornton weighs 20 pounds more than Kearney. Russell Byrd also is an option, with his shooting abilities and size, but he's probably not ready for a large amounts of minutes. He averaged 5.8 minutes per game during the season and his single-game high in a Big Ten game was just seven minutes. It's possible MSU goes with Nix and Payne on the court at the same time, with Green in Dawson's role, but I think that's a long shot and would depend on matchups.
Going into the Big Ten tournament, MSU is listed as a No. 2 seed in most NCAA tournament bracket projections. A strong performance in Indianapolis is needed to show the selection committee that MSU is still a strong team without Dawson. However, I don't see a likely scenario in which MSU is worse than a No. 2-seed, but there isn't a huge difference between being a No-2- or No. 3-seed, anyway. Hopes of a No. 1-seed would likely require winning the Big Ten tournament and some other teams losing.
This isn't 2010 Purdue. That year, the Boilermakers were a top-four team when Robbie Hummel tore his ACL, ending his season. Purdue struggled down the stretch and ended up getting a No. 4-seed in the NCAA tournament. Hummel was Purdue's best player. That would be like MSU losing Green at this point. Also, if this loss was a season-killer, MSU wouldn't have enough time to prove they weren't worthy of a top-three seed.
Despite being the top seed in the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans enter with a chip on their shoulder. Coming off what Tom Izzo later called the worst loss of his career, Izzo told the crowd at Breslin Center on Monday night that MSU would go get "our championship back." Nix said sharing the title with the "Little nephews" (Michigan) was disappointing. Add in the loss of Dawson, and the Spartans have a lot to prove. MSU is heading to Indy with the clear goal of winning the tournament. That isn't the case in most seasons. (MSU hasn't reached the final since 2000, when it won).
Does Dawson's injury kill MSU's Final Four hopes? No. As you've probably been reminded over the last day, the Spartans reached the Final Four in 2010 with Kalin Lucas going out midway though the second-round game against Maryland. But this does significantly hurt those hopes. The 2010 Spartans got some breaks on their run, not playing a team seeded higher than fourth for the entire tournament (and they had Lucas for half that game). There probably won't be many picking MSU to get to New Orleans. But few picked them to win the Big Ten this season. Someone will have to step up. (Vote on the right side how far you think MSU will go)
Looking ahead, Dawson has a long road back to recovery. Izzo told reporters that the injury usually is a 5-to-7 month deal, with Dawson unable to practice for about six months. There isn't a ton of swelling, so Dawson should be able to get te surgery done early. It's quite the coincidence that a player's season ended with a knee injury on the day Delvon Roe rejoined the team. Izzo said they will be as safe as possible with Dawson, not wanting to rush him back too early and create more problems. Dawson doesn't want to redshirt, but Izzo said it's not out of the question. Whatever will be the best option for Dawson's long-term future.
The worst part of the injury is that Dawson will lose out on an offseason, which is the time players use to get better. This is comparable to Payne missing the summer before his freshman season to a shoulder injury. The offseason is where Nix changed his body. Dawson is a jump shot away from being one of the best players in the Big Ten, but he won't have the upcoming summer to work on that. It'll be focused on recovery and getting back into playing shape.
There have been worse injuries to programs in recent years, so MSU fans shouldn't ask for a pity party. Dawson's 2012 season is over, but MSU's far from over, and the future still is bright. As they like to say "minor setback for a major comeback."