The Gophers’ last two wins — blowout victories over two ranked teams, Michigan State and Ohio State — have started in identical fashion. Minnesota won the tip and worked its way into the half-court offense. Seven-foot big man Liam Robbins set up on the left wing in lieu of his traditional home on the block. The Gophers kicked it out to Robbins for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer that found the bottom of the net.
Those shots have been tone-setters for the No. 16 Gophers (10-2, 3-2), who have won three out of four games, all against ranked opponents. In that four-game stretch, Robbins, the junior transfer from Drake, has averaged 18.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.8 blocks — remarkably similar to the production Minnesota lost when Daniel Oturu went pro. Tuesday he became the first Gophers player ever to earn the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week honor.
It didn’t look like Robbins was ready to perform at this level early in the season. He averaged only 23 minutes a game through the team’s first eight contests because of foul trouble, often leaving Minnesota undermanned in the post. In his Big Ten debut against No. 13 Illinois, Robbins was bullied by one of the conference’s top centers Kofi Cockburn and fouled out in just 16 minutes of action. The Gophers lost by 27 that night — a wake-up call, it turned out. They’ve won five of six since, and Robbins has looked like their second-most reliable scorer behind Marcus Carr, even becoming the top option in their recent win over the Buckeyes with 27 points.
“When you’re playing at a “mid-major” — and Drake’s obviously good, it’s a great conference — it’s a different level of physicality,” head coach Richard Pitino said after the Ohio State game, “especially with the bigs, and he’s probably not used to it. I thought he was much, much better, much improved. He’s learned from it. He was getting deeper post position. When you’re seven feet tall you have to do that. He’s embracing the physicality of the game a lot better. Sometimes you have to see that. You have to feel it first to kind of move in that direction.”
It would’ve been reasonable, even expected, to see Robbins drop off in productivity from his last season at Drake, but he’s entered a more difficult conference and matched or exceeded his totals. At Drake in 2019-20, Robbins averaged 14.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. At Minnesota, he’s averaging 14.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, and his shooting percentages are a tick better, up from 50-24-69 to 50-32-71.
The 3-point shooting is the real surprise. Robbins has made at least one 3-point shot in half the team’s games, forcing defenses to defend further from the basket.
“I definitely think that if I can hit a 3 or show I’m capable of making a 3, it definitely forces the defense to come out a little bit more,” Robbins said, “and we have some really talented guards. Both [Gach], Marcus [Carr] and Gabe [Kalscheur] all have tremendous post-up games, so if I’m able to do that it gives a different dynamic and versatility to the offense, allowing them to play inside-out and make [the defense] honor me so they can go to work in there as well.”
The key for Robbins has been staying on the court. He’s received four fouls or more in half the team’s games, including both of their losses. Minnesota is 6-0 when Robbins gets three fouls or less, as he’s averaged almost 19 points per game in those contests.
“As far as improvement in my game, I’ve just been shaking the rust off a little bit,” Robbins said. “Not playing a game since March of last year, it took me a while to get acclimated, plus I was playing with a new team and I was playing in the Big Ten, which is arguably the best conference in college basketball. I had a little foul trouble to begin with, but I’ve been really working in practice on my verticality, moving my feet to stay out of foul trouble, and I’ve been seeing the results.”
Minnesota’s over-reliance on Carr early in the season put them in a rut when Carr was shut down. Finding a No. 2 scorer hasn’t been easy with the up-and-down seasons by guards Kalscheur and Gach, so the frontcourt has needed to pick up the slack. Brandon Johnson and Robbins combined for five 3-pointers in overtime to knock off No. 4 Iowa, Robbins was their second scorer in an 81-56 victory against Michigan State, and the big man’s 27 points against Ohio State carried the Gophers on a night when Carr only made one first-half shot.
“He’s the anchor back there, offensively and defensively,” said Carr. “Obviously, he’s a big body down there. He gives us a lot of things: protection at the rim, scoring at the rim, he’s able to kind of stretch out, shoot the ball as well. I think you saw [versus Ohio State] they tried to double him a little bit, and he was able to pass the ball to the post as well, so he showed his whole game. He’s just playing how we all know he can play. Playing how he’s been playing since he got here. A lot of people were kind of doubting him, trying to get on him early. … It’s not a surprise to us at all. We knew he could do this all along.”
The Gophers’ gauntlet of a schedule doesn’t slow down. They have two games of the next three against No. 10 Michigan, sandwiched around a rematch against now-No. 5 Iowa. Michigan features 7’1″ big man Hunter Dickinson, while Iowa stars arguably the best center in the country in Luka Garza, who scored 32 points against the Gophers at Williams Arena.
Robbins’ tests are only just beginning.