Spartans big man Davis back in center of things

College basketball: Junior Paul Davis has raised his game since a December benching, helping fuel Michigan State's tournament run.

Final Four

Focus on Michigan State

April 01, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Paul Davis came to Michigan State three years ago with the type of in-state hype you'd expect from a player who had won Mr. Basketball during his last season in high school and was considered one of the top college prospects in the country.

It didn't take long for the 6-foot-11 center to find a place in the program's lore.

At the end of a solid freshman year in which he averaged just under eight points and five rebounds a game, Davis scored 13 points and made a couple of big shots in the final minute to catapult Michigan State past Maryland, the defending national champion, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

"It seems like it was just yesterday," Davis recalled last week in Austin, Texas, where he helped lead the fifth-seeded Spartans past top-seeded Duke and second-seeded Kentucky and into the 2005 Final Four. "It was a crazy time. It was one of those things you grow up dreaming of."

Those dreams eventually became harsh reality for Davis this season. After being named first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, Davis slipped to third team in the league this season and, for at least one game, second team at Michigan State.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo, growing impatient with Davis' inconsistency and lack of leadership, benched the junior after he was badly outplayed by George Washington's Pops Mensah-Bonsu in December.

Though the demotion was temporary, Davis wore down mentally as the season wore on, nearly to the point where he wore out his welcome in East Lansing. During a semester-break visit to Izzo's house last month, things started to come back together for Davis.

"Something just hit me that whole week. I changed my whole attitude and carried it to the [Big Ten] tournament," Davis said. "Honestly, I don't know what it is, but I'm trying to hold on to it as long as I can. Just being more aggressive, being more vocal, showing more emotion.

"Sometimes when I do that, it helps me and it helps the team at the same time. He [Izzo] was surprised when it happened because I admit, I don't show it as much as some people do, but it's not like it's not in me."

Davis let it all come out last week in Austin.

Diving for loose balls, banging for rebounds and making big shots in both games, Davis finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 78-68 win over the Blue Devils, then came back with 15 points and 11 rebounds in a 94-88 double-overtime thriller against the Wildcats.

The victories put Michigan State (26-6) into tomorrow's semifinal against North Carolina at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Davis' recent performances put him in the school record books as the only Spartan aside from Magic Johnson to have double doubles in three NCAA tournament games.

"Paul just looked at himself in the mirror and realized some things he had to do," said junior guard Maurice Ager. "He had to get out of his comfort zone. I really think that it's helped him so much. He's not just holding back right now."

Said Izzo: "Three weeks before the end of the season, he was consistently playing better. He was doing a better job of being aggressive. If he gets aggressive, he will be as good a player as we all thought. Sometimes it takes a little longer than you would like or definitely think I would like, but he is making progress."

Asked after the Duke game who it was that fired up the often laconic Davis against Duke, Izzo said, "His mother and father do a good job of that. I just leave that to other people."

Davis credits Izzo for getting him through the many long stretches of indifferent play.

"It started last year after the Duke game after they played us at our place," Davis recalled. "A lot of things were said and a lot of things were thrown on the table, and that's when I thought our relationship really took off. We talk whenever I'm in there [in Izzo's office].

"We're trying to say something to each other every day just to get on the same page. I think one thing is, it's tough because I can't go to friends or family or even sometimes teammates to know what I'm going through, but Coach is one of those guys who've been through it."

What does Izzo tell him?

"Go play your game," Davis said. "Sometimes I think earlier in the year I was thinking about my game a little too much rather than playing the game we all grew up playing."

In his defense, Davis has been the team's only legitimate big man since Erazem Lorbek returned to his native Slovakia to play professionally after the 2002-03 season. Though Izzo has tried to find more minutes for 6-10 sophomore Drew Naymick, Davis is the only player in the rotation with any bulk.

"There are a lot of guards that have come through our program and have done really well. We have a lot of guards now," Davis said. "A big man in any program, but especially here, plays a big role in the offense. We're not going out around the three. We have to go inside and establish a solid base."

Davis will try to keep doing what he did last week against Duke, when he helped foul out Shelden Williams, as well as what he did against Kentucky, when he made up for in hustle what he lacked in execution.

Now Davis will try to do the same against Sean May and the Tar Heels.

"This is the time of year when everybody's watching. This is the time of year when big players step up and make plays for their teams," Davis said. "It's a good thing we have a lot of people on this team that can do that."

At a glance

At Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

Tomorrow's semifinals

Illinois (36-1) vs. Louisville (33-4), 6:07 p.m.

North Carolina (31-4) vs. Michigan State (26-6), 8:47 p.m. approximately

Monday's title game

Semifinal winners, 9:18 p.m.

TV: All games on chs. 13, 9

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