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Branden Dawson, Michigan State rounding into form as Big Ten final awaits

Branden Dawson has injected life into the Spartans since he returned from a hand injury. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)Branden Dawson has injected life into the Spartans since he returned from a hand injury. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – The strips of bright green medical tape on Branden Dawson's right hand remain conspicuously present. He slammed it onto a table in late January and broke it and the brace and a tape are evidence of that. And they are now the only evidence of that after two days at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, because what's conspicuously absent from the multifarious Michigan State forward's production is any trace of limitation. Dawson is back to being himself again, and the Spartans look like the team everyone expected them to be.

And just in time to face the team they came to face. An 83-75 win over Wisconsin in a Big Ten tournament semifinal on Saturday afforded Michigan State a third shot at Michigan this season in the championship game Sunday. Both previous meetings resulted in Wolverines wins. Both previous meetings also occurred with the Spartans not quite at full strength, with Dawson watching from the bench each time. It meant Michigan State was without a solid rebounder and a versatile defender, and it meant Dawson was bursting with anxiety the whole time.

“It was sad,” Dawson said. “Just to see those guys play hard and fight, and unfortunately they came up short. I felt like I could have helped out a lot on defense and rebounding and just bringing energy. I'm definitely ready.”

Of that there is little doubt. He scored 16 points and snared nine rebounds in a quarterfinal thrashing of Northwestern. On Saturday, it was 14 points and seven rebounds against Wisconsin. This after averaging 6.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in the three previous games, his first back in action since the hand injury. There is unmistakable explosiveness in his play, as demonstrated by an athletic score on an inbounds play lob pass in the second half Saturday. There is also unmistakable finesse that is even more surprising.

Maybe one of Dawson's most eye-opening scores Saturday was a relatively simple pull-up jumper from mid-range. It was a smooth stroke even for someone who didn't have a broken bone in the hand used to shoot it. “It's weird, because he's almost shooting better now than he was before,” Spartans guard Travis Trice said. “He looks more confident when he's making moves than he was before. To be honest with you, as long as he was out, he shouldn't be where he's at now.”

During the regular season, Dawson was a 58.4 percent shooter. In the Big Ten tournament, he's taken 20 shots and he's made 14. He even evidently took off the brace at one point and received a scolding from teammate Russell Byrd. Keep it on, Byrd said.

“It all starts with just coming in and working,” Dawson said. “Denzel (Valentine) and Gary (Harris), we live together, and when those guys go to the gym, I'm right behind them, working free throws and putting up shots.”

The Michigan games were the first and last that Dawson missed due to the hand injury. But he is clearly juiced to be, as he put it, “giving this team the uplift it's been missing.” It's not missing much anymore. Six players scored in double figures on Saturday and the Spartans shot 56.9 percent overall.

Whatever irregularities Michigan State had to work through due to injuries to Dawson and Keith Appling and Adreian Payne – really, it's almost easier to list who hasn't been injured at some point – may now at last be a thing of the past. “We're just scratching the surface,” Payne said. “This tournament has been good because we've played with each other more and we're starting to look better.”

No one more than Dawson. The Michigan games were the first and last, respectively, that he sat out during his recovery from the hand injury.

On Sunday, everyone involved can see what they were missing.

“I've told my coaches and my teammates, right now, around this time, I feel great,” Dawson said. “It doesn't get any better than this.”

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