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He Was Lost in Thought

Times Staff Writer

Paul Davis has become the first Michigan State player since Magic Johnson in 1979 to record three consecutive double-doubles in the NCAA tournament -- which is funny if you think of these Spartans as clown masks.

Magic was Mr. Happy Face. He exuded energy and enthusiasm, all dimples and teeth. His love for the game was unabashed.

Davis, by contrast, has to be coaxed into attending some games.

His body language and vocal delivery evoke images of Eeyore, the perpetually blue-gray donkey from children’s literature.

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Since arriving in East Lansing in 2002, the 6-foot-11 junior has spent more time in Coach Tom Izzo’s office than Izzo’s coffee cup.

“I think for the last couple of years I felt like I spent 24 hours a day with Paul,” Izzo recently remarked.

Last year, in the midst of another funk, Izzo asked Davis to get in his car and go for a ride.

Izzo had had it up to here (picture the diminutive coach waving his hand head-high to Davis’ shoulders) with Davis’ mood swings.

Scene from “The Godfather IV”?

“I removed the horse head from my bed, and then I just mentioned the back of a truck,” Izzo joked.

Izzo might have been tempted to drop Davis off at the Ohio line, especially after Davis dropped the bombshell that he didn’t really like basketball.

“I will be the first to tell you that it gets frustrating,” Izzo said.

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But Izzo also said, “Those are probably the most fun times of the job, when you get to sit down with somebody and get out of your office or their dorm room or apartment and try to do something off the wall.”

Davis’ problem, if you could call it one, was that he was a budding star who thought too much, saw too much, cared too much and didn’t dunk enough.

He came to Michigan State from Rochester, Mich., touted as the next great Spartan. When it didn’t work out that way at first, Davis retreated as much as a 6-11 guy could.

When he had a bad game, he thought every eyeball on campus was fixed on him.

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“You didn’t want to go to class the next day, didn’t want to go anywhere,” Davis said. “Just wanted to sit in a room and have nobody see you.”

Davis didn’t like that people judged him based on basketball production.

“People get that mixed up all the time,” he said. “They don’t understand, you do have a life, you do interact with people on a daily basis. If you’re not playing well for your team, or doing what you should, then you’re not a great person?

“That’s where you stick with your teammates ... that inner circle.”

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It would be a made-for-television finish foolery to suggest last year’s moonlight drive with Izzo turned Davis’ career around.

It didn’t happen that fast. Davis has spent many more hours in Izzo’s waiting room.

It seems easy to forget now that Michigan State has advanced to its fourth Final Four in the last seven seasons that the Spartans did not win the Big Ten regular-season title or tournament.

Long before recent glory, there was a seven-point December defeat to George Washington and a home defeat to No. 1 Illinois on Feb. 1, after which Davis once again went knock, knock, knockin’ on Izzo’s door.

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“I think I was standing up the whole time,” Davis recalled of the meeting. “Just letting him know where I stand and where I want to go.”

At some point between then and now, the light switched on in Davis’ head.

He says something happened during spring break, a week before the Big Ten tournament.

“It was just us up there on campus,” he said, “something just hit me and that whole week I change my whole attitude and carried it on to the tournament. Honestly, I can’t say what it is, but I’m just trying to hold on to it as long as I can.”

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No one Spartan is more responsible for the team’s four-game run in the NCAA tournament.

It is more than just the hard numbers of increased production, although Davis is averaging 15 points and 10.8 rebounds in the tournament compared with 12.2 and 7.8 during the regular season.

Out of nowhere, almost, Davis has taken more of a take-charge role.

“Paul just looked at himself in the mirror and realized some things he had to do,” teammate Maurice Ager said.

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“He had to get out of his comfort zone, and I really think it’s helped so much. He’s stepped his game up and is rebounding more, and he’s just not holding back right now.”

A highlight of Davis’ energetic rebirth was his follow dunk off teammate Alan Anderson’s missed shot to put Michigan State up by five points in the second overtime of Sunday’s 94-88 Austin Regional win over Kentucky.

Davis by the NCAA tournament numbers: 14 points and six rebounds against Old Dominion, 11 points and 14 rebounds against Vermont, 20 points and 12 rebounds against Duke, and 15 points and 11 rebounds against Kentucky.

Next up for Davis is Saturday’s national-semifinal showdown against North Carolina and a center stage stare-down against Tar Heel Sean May.

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As a fan growing up, Davis wore Tar Heel gear for as long as his mother, a Michigan State graduate, would allow it.

Eventually, Davis joked, “I had to start getting rid of some of that stuff and start wearing more green and white.”

Davis has no problem gearing up for basketball now. He seems to have turned an emotional corner.

“It’s the best I’ve felt,” Davis said. “I feel like we’re unstoppable right now. I think that’s the best feeling when you have gone through some stuff earlier in the season.”

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All it took for Davis was time ... and letting Izzo take the driver’s seat.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

MICHIGAN STATE (26-6)

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SEEDED FIFTH IN SYRACUSE REGIONAL

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AT A GLANCE

* How they got there: Michigan State failed to win the Big Ten regular-season or tournament title but earned an at-large bid as the fifth-seeded team in the Austin Regional. In the first round, it defeated No. 12 Old Dominion, 89-81; in the second round, the Spartans downed No. 13 Vermont, 72-61; in the round of 16, Michigan State upset top-seeded Duke, 78-68; and in the regional final, it beat No. 2 Kentucky, 94-88.

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* Leading tournament scorers: Maurice Ager, 13.8 ppg; Alan Anderson, 13.7; Paul Davis, 12.2; Shannon Brown, 10.8.

* Leading tournament rebounders: Davis: 7.8 rpg; Anderson, 5.6; Ager, 3.9.

* Keys to the season: Coach Tom Izzo took a sledgehammer to the team’s game tapes after a Big Ten tournament loss to Iowa; Davis has brought newfound energy to his game.

* Key facts: Michigan State is making its fourth Final Four appearance in seven seasons. The Spartans were the first team to defeat Duke and Kentucky in the same tournament. Davis is the first Spartan since Magic Johnson in 1979 to record three consecutive double-doubles in the NCAA tournament. Johnson had four in a row in leading Michigan State to the national title.

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-- Chris Dufresne


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