On the eve of 2014, the fifth-ranked Michigan State Spartans opened Big Ten play with a 79-63 victory over Penn State on the road.
After a lackluster first half in which MSU basketball found itself trailing the Nittany Lions (9-5, 0-1) 47-40 heading into the locker room, the Spartans (12-1, 1-0) were able to bounce back in the second half as junior forward Branden Dawson scored 12 of his 20 points in the final 20 minutes.
Here are the five takeaways from MSU’s Big Ten opener:
1. Branden Dawson has answered
For the Spartans, the case can be made that their outcome this season rests on the shoulders of Dawson. The junior forward from Gary, Ind., has the potential to be a game changer on both ends of the floor night in and night out. He’s a solid defender who can guard three position on the floor — on most nights — and offensively, he brings the interior scoring that MSU often lacks at times. He attacks the glass as well as anybody on the team and his energy, when he’s dialed in, can’t be matched.
However, Dawson’s downside is that he doesn’t bring that energy every night, well, he didn’t prior to Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo calling him out after the Spartans’ lone loss to North Carolina earlier this year.
Since that night, Dawson is averaging nearly 15 points per game and 10 rebounds in four games, and tonight’s performance — 20 points, nine rebounds and three blocks — was arguably his best of the year.
2. Kenny Kaminski’s progress is huge moving forward
All season one of Michigan State’s weaknesses has been the inconsistent play of the big men opposite of Adreian Payne. Despite playing 12 minutes tonight, sophomore center Matt Costello has been suffering from mononucleosis. Freshman Gavin Schilling has shown great progress in just his first couple of weeks in college, but he clearly isn’t ready to make a splash quite yet. And while redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski has been in Izzo’s doghouse for a large portion of the season, he may be exactly what the Spartans need moving forward.
Kaminski’s ability to stretch the floor and shoot from deep is his lone specialty at this point in his career, and with MSU’s inability to get consistent post-up scoring from anyone other than Payne — who is also one of the team’s best deep shooters and often floats out to the 3-point line too often — Kaminski could provide the stretch-the-floor big man that would allow Payne to operate more in the post.
In nine minutes tonight Kaminski scored six points — 2 of 4 from deep — and hauled in two rebounds. On the season the 6-foot-8 forward is 6 of 12 from 3-point land, and as he continues to get comfortable with the college game he will be a huge asset to the Spartans. You could see the potential tonight.
3. Slow starts
The Spartans’ slow starts in games trickled over to Big Ten play where they found themselves playing catch up to the Nittany Lions for the first 20 minutes. Penn State went on a 13-5 run in the first six minutes, and an array of missed jumpers and turnovers caused MSU to spend the first half climbing out of its deficit rather than setting a tone.
If the Spartans started games with the same tenacity and energy that they finished games with they would dominate teams that they were supposed to dominate — something that’s been an issue in recent years. Until MSU can figure out how to go at teams from the start on a more consistent basis and get the mindset that they want to knock teams out before they have a chance to blink, I’m not 100 percent sure that they will win the Big Ten championship.
4. A healthy Travis Trice is one of the more underrated aspects of this team
Not only does having junior point guard Travis Trice healthy do wonders for senior point guard Keith Appling, it gives the Spartans someone off the bench who has the ability to make a difference.
Trice scored 12 points off the bench for MSU in tonight’s victory, and for a team that has a lot of inexperience on the pine, it’s pivotal that Trice continues to be productive. While Izzo isn’t afraid to play 10 or sometimes 11 players every night, he’s going to need Trice to be consistent because he doesn’t have too many other players he can go to that have the ability to make a splash from the perimeter.
5. Denzel Valentine continues to be productive
The improvement from sophomore guard Denzel Valentine after his freshman season is one of the more noticeable differences on this team. Not only has his jump shot improved, which has allowed him to be a more versatile scorer, but he’s becoming a smarter decision maker and his rebounding ability has vastly improved. I wouldn’t say he’s Draymond Green directly, but he does have the ability to fill up the stat sheet and affect the games in more ways than just his passing.
Valentine finished with nine points, six assists and two steals against Penn State, and while tonight wasn’t one of his better games of the season, it’s evident that he’s learning how to utilize his diverse skill set and stay on the floor.
Izzo had a short leash with Valentine as a freshman because of his turnovers and immaturity as a player, but it’s clear that leash has loosen up since Valentine has proved that he can affect the game in several different areas.