Gophers expecting — and now getting — big things from 7-foot center Liam Robbins

In a normal year with a full offseason, regular practices and a slew of nonconference games, Robbins would have had ample time to ready himself for the rigors of the Big Ten. He got none of that.

Minnesota Gophers center Liam Robbins (0) is fouled by Ohio State Buckeyes forward Kyle Young (25) during the first half at Williams Arena on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. Harrison Barden / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — In Liam Robbins’ short time with the Gophers men’s basketball team, he’s been tested.

The Drake transfer was thrust into the large hole that Daniel Oturu left in the starting lineup when he left to play in the NBA. In a normal year with a full offseason, regular practices and a slew of nonconference games, Robbins would have had ample time to ready himself for the rigors of the Big Ten.

He got none of that.

The team was forced to shut down just weeks before the season because of coronavirus protocol, and Robbins dealt with injury issues that sidelined him even when the team was cleared to return.

In Minnesota’s six nonconference games, his time off the court showed. Robbins battled foul trouble issues and looked to be shaking off the rust. And with the Gophers playing eight consecutive games against ranked opponents to open Big Ten play, Robbins needed to acclimate fast.


Lucky enough for the Gophers, he has.

In Sunday’s win against Ohio State, Robbins was the heartbeat of the team on both ends of the floor, scoring a season-high 27 points while grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking five shots.

His performance that game helped him earn Big Ten player of the week honors. And on Tuesday, he became the first Gophers player ever to be named the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week, an award the U.S. Basketball Writers Association began handing out during the 2009-10 season.

“He played a great game against Ohio State, and hopefully that’ll give him confidence moving forward,” coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday. “But now (he’s) got to follow it up.”

His reward? Yet another test.

No. 16 Minnesota (10-2) heads to No. 10 Michigan (9-0) for a 7 p.m. Wednesday game in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Robbins will draw the Wolverines’ leading scorer: Hunter Dickinson, a 7-foot-1, 255-pound freshman averaging 17 points and eight rebounds per game. The 20-year-old center is one inch taller and 20 pounds heavier than Robbins.

Dickinson has been a revelation for the undefeated Wolverines, starting the past four games after beginning the year on the bench. His emergence plus a wealth of depth and talent has pushed Michigan to the top of the Big Ten standings.

It also adds to Robbins’ importance. Having already faced the likes of top-notch big men Luka Garza, Kofi Cockburn, Joey Hauser and Nate Reuvers, Robbins has kept Minnesota’s frontcourt afloat in a conference that demands good play down low. He’ll need to do the same against Dickinson.


“I definitely think more so than any conference, we have a collection of some terrific big guys,” Pitino said.

Without Robbins, the Gophers surely wouldn’t be ranked No. 16 in this week’s Associated Press poll, their highest ranking since 2017-18. They’ve played well against one of the toughest schedules in the country thus far. In their five Quadrant 1 games, they are 3-2.

With Pitino and the Gophers anticipating a continued focus on guard Marcus Carr like they saw against Ohio State, Robbins’ ability to score and make plays in the post have opened up a second dynamic scoring option.

Yet, Pitino still sees room to grow, for both Robbins and the rest of the Gophers.

“Nobody’s arrived,” the coach said. “I don’t think we’re even close to our peak individually or collectively.”

Beating Michigan on the road would be the next right step towards their arrival and would signal another strong performance from Robbins. Minnesota is undefeated in 10 games at Williams Arena, but has lost badly in the team’s only two games on the road, 92-65 at Illinois on Dec. 15 and 71-59 at Wisconsin on Dec. 31.

While Pitino doesn’t see much difference between any games, calling them all “neutral site,” several players said anything from the different rims and balls have had an effect on them, especially in their poor-shooting loss to Wisconsin.

Whether it’s a physical hurdle or just a mental one, Pitino isn’t buying it.


“We’ve got to play better versus terrific teams; that’s how I look at it,” he said. “Illinois is a very good team that we did not play well against. I don’t care where that game was. Same with Wisconsin. The rims have nothing to do with defense. The rims have nothing to do with your energy or enthusiasm. … We’ve just got to go play well against another really good team.”

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