For Michigan State, last season was The Season. I mean, just look at that starting five.
Gary Harris, one of the nation's best freshmen in 2012-13 -- a truly one-and-done-level shooting guard who stayed for Year 2 -- was playing better on both ends of the floor. After morphing from an athletic shot-blocker into a perimeter threat late in 2012-13, Adreian Payne lived up to all expectation: He was the best all-around big man in the country. Keith Appling, a senior point guard with three tumultuous, character-building years at his back, was posting the most efficient offensive numbers of his life. Tom Izzo had flexibility in his fifth starter/subs spots, with guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine and forward Matt Costello. And Branden Dawson was doing what he does best: Rim-running, rebounding, cleaning everything up.
That was the Michigan State we saw early in the season, the one everybody thought could and would win the national title. You know what happened next. Appling winced through a shoulder injury that grounded his early efficiency into dust. Payne battled a foot problem that kept him off the court for six of his team's first eight Big Ten games. On Jan. 23, near the end of Payne's convalescence, Dawson, angry with himself during a team tape session, slammed his hand into a table. The hand broke, and Dawson missed the next nine games as it healed.
On Feb. 1, Michigan State went to Madison Square Garden to play a late-season nonconference game against Georgetown. The Spartans lost 64-60 to a mediocre Hoyas group; they couldn't have looked less like the November ideal.
The situation improved by March. Everyone was back on the floor, and the Spartans were a popular national title pick. But Appling never got back to the slick stuff he flashed early in the season. The Spartans fell prey to Connecticut's chaotic backcourt attack in the Elite Eight. With all that talent and experience, it was hard to feel like bad luck -- injuries, in other words -- caused the Spartans to miss their shot.
The disappointment might make it easy to forget why, even after an injury-plagued season, with at least three key players still recovering from issues so late into the year, so many people took Michigan State to win the title anyway. It's exactly what makes the 2014-15 campaign a fascinating one for Michigan State: Branden Dawson was awesome.
After returning from injury -- with a cast still on his hand -- Dawson played the best and most consistent basketball of his career. In MSU's six postseason games before the Connecticut loss, including three in their victorious Big Ten tournament run, Dawson shot 100-of-138 from the field. He grabbed just over eight rebounds per game. His average offensive rating was 152.3. Against Harvard, in the third round of the NCAA tournament, he scored 26 points on 12-of-15 from the field. Against Virginia, he had 24 on 9-of-16, and shot 6-of-8 from the line. Michigan State couldn't have won either game without him.
This is the kind of postseason production that gets you on the cover of regional college sports preview magazines. It's the kind that gets you onto the preseason All-Big Ten team. Keep that up, the thinking goes, only do a lot more of it. Presto: You're a star.
The only problem? Dawson's production came from within a well-populated galaxy of talent. His usage rate rarely climbed above 20 percent. Plays were almost never called for him. To wit: According to Synergy, Dawson's top three possession types -- the kinds of situations in which he would end Michigan State's possessions with a shot -- came on cuts (23.2 percent), transition (23.2 percent) and offensive rebounds/put backs (22.1 percent). His total number of post-ups all of last season … actually, wait, take a guess. You ready? Thirty-two.
Which brings us to 2014-15, and why Michigan State is fascinating in both the positive and negative sense of the term. By sheer fact of personnel attrition, Dawson now inherits the go-to mantle on a team that, at its best, could spread the ball between at least three reliable one-on-one scorers last season. Meanwhile, the team around him now is totally different. Trice and Valentine will take the backcourt responsibilities, and Costello will likely take over a primary frontcourt role.
Trice is a great shooter, and Valentine might be the best -- or at least the most entertaining -- passer in the country. But make no mistake: Dawson will have to be one of the nation's best players for the 2014-15 Spartans to reach their typically high standards for success.
He's done it before, on a team with so much talent an Elite Eight appearance felt like a letdown. Can Dawson do it in 2014-15, under drastically different circumstances? And if he doesn't, how good can Michigan State really be?