Exhibition games are incredibly difficult to analyze. Coaches are usually playing weird combinations and experimenting with lineups. They often haven’t done much advanced scouting. And lopsided individual matchups within the game can lead to misleading performances.
Naturally, the coach of the host and better team is never happy.
And thus was the case with Tom Izzo after Michigan State’s 85-57 win Tuesday night over Northwood’s Florida campus.
To me, the two stories of the game were Branden Dawson (16 points, seven rebounds) and Gary Harris (14 points). Izzo was pleased with Harris and not as much with Dawson.
What I find remarkable about Dawson (and here’s today’s column on him) is that eight months after what’s usually a devastating knee injury, he not only looks like himself athletically, but also appears to trust his left knee.
Anyone who’s ever gone through a knee injury — from torn ligaments and surgery, to a sprain or hyper-extension — knows the final step is learning to trust that knee is sturdy.
Dawson has taken hits on the knee in practice, fell a couple times tonight, rebounded with two hands in traffic. Never seemed tentative.
His game, tonight against an overmatched opponent at least, showed itself to be more well-rounded in terms of passing and ball-handling.
He still can’t shoot from any range, but that’s probably good news for MSU. It’ll keep Dawson from leaving for the NBA anytime soon.
Harris also impressed me Tuesday. Impressed Izzo, too, for the way he just “fits” into everything MSU is trying to do. His defense on smaller, maybe quicker guards was terrific at times (same with Keith Appling), and he’s simply smooth on offense. I wouldn’t be stunned if Harris leads the Spartans in scoring this year.
But again, this is where exhibition games can be somewhat misleading.
This instance, however, might not be as bad as some of these exhibitions. Northwood, a powerhouse Division II NAIA program, had three or four players who’d be outstanding mid-major players and a couple that could play some places in the Big Ten. This program played Maryland to within five points last year and then beat Fordham.
Don’t be fooled by the D-II status. NAIA ball is like junior college in terms of the difference between Division I and II being more resources and choice than talent. And the NAIA has much looser eligibility requirements than the NCAA.
Two players that shouldn’t be analyzed are Spartan bigs Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, who made their debut as a tandem. The size difference inside makes it both unfair to praise and criticize. This reminded me, at times, of my early days in this business covering juco hoops. Division I-caliber big men would struggle during the regular season against 6-foot-5 centers and then play well in the national tournament against other true bigs, guys they could lean on.
Overall, I saw nothing that should be overly discouraging long-term. Not after one game, at least. And the performances of Harris and Dawson would seem to be a good sign for MSU.
But again, these games are hard to read.