Before we get to the punch, let’s talk about the game. Purdue went into East Lansing today on a high after the big win against Illinois at home. And Michigan State came into the match after suffering a disappointing loss to Minnesota on December 31st. The renewed confidence that engulfed the Purdue program led some to believe that they could come into this game and at least give Michigan State a fight.
And for the first 27 minutes of the game, that was indeed the case. Purdue kept up with Michigan State’s frenetic play, keeping the game close throughout. Even when the Spartans seemed poised to take control the game and blow it open, Purdue would respond, using tough defense and an efficient offense. Purdue was down six at halftime, but they fought back to take a one point lead on an AJ Hammons free throw with 16:04 remaining in the contest. From then on, though, it would be all Michigan State, as they finished the game out-scoring Purdue 46-22, which included a back-breaking 28-7 run.
The catalyst for that run was a technical foul called on Anthony Johnson on the fast break. As he careened towards the basket, he was hit on the arm (it looked like he had started his shooting motion, but it was not called that way) and on his follow-through he swung his elbow up and made contact with the Michigan State defender, Travis Trice. The call was initially a foul on Trice, but the refs went to the monitor to look at the elbow, and after a lengthy debate (which was aggravating in itself) they decided to hit Johnson with the tech. Trice hit both of the resulting free throws and from then on, Michigan State dominated.
A big reason why they were able to do so was the foul trouble that AJ Hammons found himself in. On the ensuing Michigan State possession, Hammons grabbed the rebound, turned into a defender (I was not sure that he made contact, but others said he did and I believe them, so…) and was called for the foul. Three minutes later he would foul again – his fourth – and Matt Painter was forced to turn to Travis Carroll to try and slow down the Spartan beef up front. He was not up to the task today, as he does not possess Hammons’ offensive prowess, and sensing a weak link in Purdue’s defense, Michigan State ran play after play for Derrick Nix and others right at him. Nix would finish with 10 points, most of which came with Carroll defending him. Hammons would later be re-inserted in the game and he would score 10 of Purdue’s final 15 points, but it was too much to overcome. Michigan State opened up a 20 point lead with 6:55 remaining on the clock. Their offense was humming while Purdue’s was staggering. Purdue got beat by a superior team today.
Michigan State had five players in double figures today, led by Gary Harris, who led all scorers with 22 points. He went 6-8 from behind the 3-point line, and nary a shot of his was contested. Purdue was slow to close out on him on ball reversals, and often lost him in transition, frequently giving him open looks. Keith Appling was kept in check from a scoring standpoint, but he still managed to stuff the stat sheet with eight assists, three rebounds, two steals, two blocks, and only one turnover. Branden Dawson managed to shake off some recent struggles to go for 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Purdue’s struggles offensively came down to shooting, as it has all season. Purdue managed to only shoot 45% from the free throw line (Hammons himself was 4-10), 28.6% from behind the 3-point line, and 39.3% from the field. Compare that with Michigan State, who went 81.8%, 53.3%, and 45.3%. Additionally, Purdue was out-rebounded by Michigan State 41-33 (including an offensive rebounding difference of 11-10) and comitted 15 second half fouls. They were led in scoring by Hammons, who had 20 points to go along with his seven rebounds. DJ Byrd chipped in 14 (2-7 on 3-pointers) and Terone Johnson had 11 on 5-19 shooting.
Purdue was beaten by a better team today. With all the talk about Michigan and Indiana this season, Michigan State might be the best team in the conference. They are incredibly well-balanced, have a number of scoring options, all of whom could pour in 20+ points on any given night. They play great defensive, and are as effective in transition as they are in their half court sets. Do not be surprised if the Spartans find themselves at the top of the Big 10 standings by year end.
And now, the punch. Branden Dawson has a storied relationship with Purdue University, going back to his recruitment as part of the 2011 class. He ended up going to Michigan State after Purdue seemed to be in the drivers seat for much of his recruitment. This bred some resentment on both sides, the true story behind which we will probably never know. This boiled over last season when he and Matt Painter had a heated exchange during the game in East Lansing last year. A Dawson apology seemed to herald the end of the matter, but once again, Dawson found himself at the center of a controversy involving Purdue.
Go back and watch the video, here. On a Michigan State fastbreak, Branden Dawson ran to the lane, apparently expecting a pass from Gary Harris, who had the ball out on the wing. Harris shot the three instead of passing, making the basket. As the ball soared through the air, Travis Carroll ran down and got into position to box Dawson out, laying his shoulder into him and establishing inside position. The contact between Carroll and Dawson was not egregious; contact like that is made on every possession in the Big 10. This apparently pissed Dawson off. After the bucket was made, Dawson slightly pushed off of Travis, then turned around and swung a punch towards Carroll’s midsection, causing Carroll to cover his stomach and lean over slightly, before turning to the ref as if to say “Did you not see that?”. At this point, seeing what happened, Rapheal Davis came in to confront Dawson and was quickly pulled away. Joining him was Terone Johnson, looking as pissed as I have ever seen him. Dawson did the whole “hold me back, hold me back, hold me back” routine and the scuffle was broken up, and both Dawson and Johnson were assessed technical fouls.
A Michigan State spokesperson later stated that they reviewed the tape and saw no punch, and thus, no reason to discipline Dawson. They said that they had additional tape not seen on the TV broadcast, shot from the baseline, which exonerated Dawson. Some speculated that Dawson did not throw a punch, that he was pumping his fist and thus the misunderstanding.
It is unfathomable to me that this is a misunderstanding. Dawson had his back to Carroll, turned, balled his fist, pulled his arm back, and then extended his clenched fist directly at Carroll’s midsection. He head was pointed directly at Carroll, and after the punch he continued to turn his body to square with Carroll while either yelling or talking right to him (or at least, mean-muggin). If there is a video, shot from the baseline, that proves all of that is coincidental, then I would love to see it, and I will readily admit that I was wrong and apologize for what I have said here. But based on what I saw, I cannot imagine how that is not a punch.
The outrage from the Purdue fanbase was immediate, and I am sure that tape of the incident has been passed on to the conference office for review (though I would not hold my breath; I would welcome the Big 10 to surprise me, though). Some have taken to calling Dawson a “thug”, but I disagree.
Branden Dawson is not a thug. He may be a jerk (as evident by his tendency to yap his mouth, but only when Michigan State is winning of course), but I do not think “thug” is the appropriate term here. What he is, is a child. A brat, with the emotional maturity of a toddler. As a three-year old might when denied a desired toy, so Dawson is when things are not going as he wishes. He was in poor position for the offensive rebound, and was muscled out by Travis Carroll. Maybe he felt that Carroll leaned into him too hard with his shoulder; maybe he felt as though he was held while fighting for position. Or maybe he was experiencing an emotional high while in the midst of beating a team for whom he holds such great animosity. Regardless, his clearly stunted maturity leads him to do stupid things like jaw with the opposing team’s coach and throw a punch in the middle of the game (before retreating quickly to his nearby bench).
It is unacceptable for a player to think that they can throw a punch in the middle of the game and completely escape punishment (remember, the technical foul he was assessed was for getting into it with Terone Johnson, not for the punch). The typical mean-muggin and posturing that accompanies most skirmishes in basketball is one thing. Most of the time that is just a bunch of guys who want to look tough squaring up, but nobody really wants to fight in that scenario. Throwing a punch is an escalation that cannot be accepted, lest we have another Cincinnati-Xavier situation on our hands. I have no confidence in the conference office to do anything about this. But he should have to sit out the next game for Michigan State, and he should be put on notice that the next time he fails to conduct himself in a manner consistent with being a Division-I basketball player, the punishments will be more severe.
But as with every other hurdle facing Purdue this season, the team (and their fans) must move on. There is no time for relaxation with this schedule, as Purdue slips back to .500 and has to face Ohio State in West Lafayette on the 8th. Ohio State proved to be vulnerable today against Illinois, getting blown out in Champaign. Rest assured, the Buckeyes will be ready for Purdue on Tuesday. It is up to Purdue to be ready for them as well.