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John Mutka: Michigan State’s Adrien Payne, Branden Dawson flex their muscles

Cory Osetkowski Branden Dawson

Cory Osetkowski, Branden Dawson

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Updated: December 19, 2013 6:33AM



Remember that popular TV commercial “where’s the beef?” several years ago? If the meat is still missing try checking out the Breslin Center, home of Michigan State basketball.

“We’re No. 1” discussions are premature, but beating Kentucky’s NBA farm team with its stockpiled McDonald All-Americans qualifies MSU as top-of-the-mountain material.

All that beef can be found on ESPN, BTN or stuffed in the locker room, where the veteran Spartans routinely flex their bulging biceps. Here’s a few experienced carnivores for you: Adrien Payne (6-10, 245 pounds), Branden Dawson (6-6, 225) and Denzel Washington (6-5, 225).

Behemoth Derrick Nix (6-9, 270) may have departed, but coach Tom Izzo replaced his wide-body with 6-9, 240-pound sophomore Matt Costello.

Izzo can rely on Payne and Dawson to attack the boards like hungry piranhas, which makes for business as usual at East Lansing. Thanks to this tandem the Spartans will battle rival Michigan for mastery in the paint.

Big Ten preseason choices Payne and guard Gary Harris are prepared to lead the Spartans to the land of milk and honey, but they’ll have to earn it by tramping through the No. 1 conference in the country.

“It’s a compliment to our program,” Dawson said, “but we can’t let all the accolades interfere with our goal.”

Complacency almost cost them an embarrassing home loss to Ivy League upstart Columbia over the weekend, but Payne scored 26 points and combined with Dawson for 18 rebounds in a shaky 62-53 victory.

After the narrow escape, Izzo treated the No. 1 ranking like a case of leprosy. He lobbied for Kansas, but could also put in a good word for Louisville. The defending champion is ranked No. 3.

Having started 66 games in two seasons, Dawson pronounced himself combat-ready at the Big Ten basketball preview in Chicago. A torn ACL which cost him six post-season games in his freshman year, is a fading memory.

Last year the pride of Lew Wallace established himself as one of the top front line defenders in Division I, leading the Spartans with 57 steals. Operating from close range, he shot 53.1 percent.

Over the summer Dawson refined his ball handling skills and expanded his range to give him more flexibility on offense, which would be helpful if he’s used at No. 3 forward.

Scoring shouldn’t be a problem with guards Keith Appling (13.4 average last year), Harris (12.9) and Payne (10.5, 7.6 rebounds).

Before the Columbia scare Izzo basically agreed with voters who gave MSU the preseason nod in the Big Ten.

“We’ve got a veteran team and we’ve added some pieces,” he said.

One of those pieces belongs to Harris, who played hurt (shoulder) most of last season. Now hale and hearty, the anointed gym rat should deliver. Big Ten voters agreed, naming him the preseason player of the year.

“One of the best guards I’ve ever coached,” Izzo contends. “He’s very humble, low maintenance. He’ll get better and better and should be one of the all-time great guards at Michigan State.”

Izzo is given to anxiety attacks when discussing the Big Ten, but his 209-95 conference record — No. 1 among the actives — speaks for itself. Still, built-in strength of schedule gives him reason for concern. As many as seven conference teams could be listed among the top 25.

“By playing them twice we could be facing ranked opponents in 12, 14 games,” he said, a frown spreading across his face. “That’s pretty awesome.”

The Spartans will tune up with a rugged non-conference schedule. Life after Kentucky includes Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Texas and Georgetown.

It’s a price Izzo is willing to pay for a seventh Final Four appearance in 20 years.

Old Timers switch gears: For the first time in its 68-year history the Gary Old Timers will be engaged in Hawky-talk. Former Blackhawks’ star Dennis Hull will be the guest speaker in the Jan. 8 affair.

Hull scored most of his 300-plus goals in Chicago from 1965-78, peaking with 40 in the 1970-71 season when he played along side his brother, Bobby, and Stan Mikita. They reached the Stanley Cup Final, losing to Montreal’s Flying Frenchmen in seven games.

The Gary Old Timers will also honor Len Schmidt, who coached football at Calumet, then served as Merrillville High School athletic director.

Tickets for the affair at Avalon Manor cost $35. For more details, contact Mark Hoffman or Tom Pruzin.

Speaking of Hawks ... While on the subject of high flyers LaTroy (Hawk) Hawkins is expecting to return to the New York Mets for his 20th major league season. Last year, he emerged as their bullpen leader with a 2.93 ERA over 72 appearances. When asked to switch from setup to closer in August he responded with 13 saves.

The ageless Gary native — OK so he’s 40 — earned a mere $1 million salary, making him a bargain-basement value by present standards.



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