[Top: Patrick Barron; Bottom: Bryan Fuller]
The pair of photos up top are from Duncan Robinson's first appearance in a Michigan uniform, an exhibition against Le Moyne in 2015. The picture below them is from the 2018 Final Four.
Robinson had perfect, invariant form. His puppies were always organized, if I may borrow a Rafteryism. No matter how he took off, he squared up to the basket. His release was swift and precise; his follow-through an immaculate gooseneck. It looked like he should never miss; quite often, it felt like he couldn't.
A couple months ago, that would've been the lens through which we viewed Robinson's entire Michigan career, for better and worse: a static image of a shooter.
Then he killed Lamar Stevens.
That Robinson even got to Michigan in the first place is a remarkable story, albeit one as familiar as "Charles Matthews transferred from Kentucky" and "John Beilein was never an assistant coach." It's still worth revisiting.
Even though Robinson's shooting acumen is quite apparent in his high school highlights, he chose to attend Williams College, a Division III school, because no Division I program came forth with a scholarship offer. He immediately made it evident he was too good for that setting. Robinson averaged 17 points per game, hit 45% of his threes, won D-III freshman of the year, and was the only underclassman All-American in the country.
That quickly earned Robinson the D-I attention he'd craved in high school. He garnered interest from some Big 12 and ACC programs. He ultimately chose to transfer to Michigan over Davidson, partly because his departing coach at Williams nudged him in the direction of John Beilein. You didn't have to be a basketball genius to realize Robinson's shot and Beilein's system were an ideal pairing.
[Hit THE JUMP for goosenecks, lineup shuffling, and a twist ending.]
A mixed bag. [All photos by Marc-Gregor Campredon except top right (Barron)]
After sitting out a mandated redshirt year, Robinson proved his three-pointer a D-I-quality weapon and then some. In his second official game, he made all six of his field goals—five from beyond the arc—and both free throw attempts for a tidy 19 points. Sure, the opponent was Elon, which is more technically than functionally D-I, but the shot clearly translated. A couple weeks later against Very D-I Opponent Texas, Robinson's 4-for-5 three-point shooting sparked a six-point win and an eight-game steak of double-figure scoring.
Beilein inserted Robinson into the starting lineup in the midst of that run. He replaced promising sophomore Aubrey Dawkins, a deadeye shooter who was becoming unplayable because of his poor defense. One could find a certain irony there.
As the snakebit Wolverines lost Caris LeVert to injury for the second straight year, Robinson started regularly logging 30-plus minutes per game just as Big Ten play began. With Robinson often serving as the second scoring option, this exposed the weaknesses that had him playing D-III ball in the first place; namely, shortcomings as a shot creator and defender that were byproducts of his lack of atheticism. He was slow, is what I'm saying.
Robinson shot a blistering 55% from three against non-conference opponents. That number plummeted to a solid, but not game-changing, 35% against Big Ten opponents. While still capable of pouring in buckets at a devastating pace, they mostly came against the bottom half of the league; a 21-point performance at Nebraska was quickly forgotten after a two-point dud against Michigan State, to cherry-pick an example that isn't as extreme as it may seem.
Meanwhile, Robinson played a few steps behind on defense, and the team needed a Kam Chatman buzzer beater in the Big Ten Tournament just to make the NCAA Tournament's First Four. Robinson played one of his best all-around games of the season in the tourney-opening victory over Tulsa. While he contributed a trio of three-pointers, he got lit up by Notre Dame's VJ Beachem and Bonzie Colson—one a lanky sharpshooting wing, the other a burly power forward, both mismatches—as the Wolverines bowed out two days later.
The Switch [Campredon]; Thriving [Barron]; The Bad Place [Campredon]
Robinson underwent a role reversal the following season. Now a trusted veteran, he began the season as Michigan's starter at the four. While Robinson's sharpshooting ways continued, however, DJ Wilson was blossoming into an eventual first-round NBA Draft pick. After the second game of the season, in which both players scored seven points but Wilson added 14 rebounds and five blocks, it was apparent who deserved to be in the starting lineup, and Beilein made the swap for the very next game.
If the change impacted Robinson, he didn't allow it to show on the court. While matchups still dictated his minutes and effectiveness, he maintained his shooting prowess, this time even improving his marksmanship as the season progressed; he made 45% of his threes in conference play, a ten-point uptick from the previous year.
As Robinson grew comfortable in a sixth-man role that allowed Beilein to pick his matchups, his confidence showed through, and he became one of the central figures of one of the most memorable squads in school history. He ranked first in among qualifiying Big Ten players in offensive efficiency during conference play. He mind grasped Beilein's offense nearly as well as his muscle memory took to jump shots, which allowed him to make more plays inside the arc. His defense-bending range opened up space for Derrick Walton and Moe Wagner to pick apart defenses with the high screen game in the halfcourt; it also provided a lethal weapon on the fast break, where everyone knew the best play was to find Robinson for a spot-up bomb.
Michigan finished with the nation's #4 offense, and the once-abominable defense became respectable in part due to Robinson's ability to hold his own in the post. He even co-hosted a popular podcast with teammate Andrew Dakich. Williams College felt far, far away.
Despite the team's run to the Big Ten Tournament title and second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, however, the Williams College defense lingered, and it impacted Robinson's offense. He scored in double-digits once across M's seven postseason games; increasingly big, athletic opponents held him to five points or fewer in four of them, including a goose-egg as the Wolverines eked by Louisville in the second round.
Robinson's redshirt junior season culminated in a game that defined his Michigan career to that point. Facing an Oregon team with plus athletes at most positions, Wilson hit the bench early with foul trouble, forcing Robinson onto the court for 28 minutes. With Moe Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman combining to shoot 0-for-8 on threes, Michigan needed Robinson's shooting, but he couldn't get free very often, finishing 2-for-5 from distance. On the other end, Oregon mercilessly isolated Robinson at every opportunity, and those possessions ended at the rim in layups or putbacks more often than not.
The season, like Walton's final jumper, ended just short of the Elite Eight. Robinson was far from the only scapegoat—see: the aforementioned Wagner/MAAR shooting stat—but his perimeter defense was a glaring problem on several possessions in a game that came down to the final one.
Thus Robinson stood with one year of eligibliity left: vacillating between the solution to Michigan's problems and the source of them, often within the same game.
Captain Robinson kept his confidence through another benching. [Campredon]
It was, quite frankly, hard to imagine that would change in Robinson's senior season, even as he retook a starting role following Wilson's early departure for the NBA. Two themes reemerged as supporting evidence. First, he scuffled against quality competition, connecting on 8-of-40 threes against high-major opponents to begin the season. He brought little else to the table; his O-Rating in those games was a paltry 87.5.
A slump is one thing; Robinson had snapped out of those before. The real indignity came when a younger, more athletic player usurped him for the second straight year; this time, true freshman Isaiah Livers, who didn't pack nearly the scoring punch of Robinson (or Wilson, for that matter). Instead, Livers focused on doing the little things at high speed, which fit the new defensive mentality instilled by new assistant Luke Yaklich and new starting point guard Zavier Simpson, and he gave the starting lineup a player naturally suited to guard college fours.
The benching was a tough pill to swallow for Robinson, who'd earned team captainship and embraced being a vocal leader.* Instead of becoming resentful, however, he took Livers under his wing.
“I always try to be in his ear,” Robinson, increasingly introspective by the week, said early Sunday morning. “His biggest thing is, he doesn’t realize how good he is, how talented he is. Once he can tap into that, his whole career will take off. He’s been so good for us already, but he’s just getting going. He’s got to continue to chase it, chase it, like he was when he was coming for the starting spot that he ultimately ended up winning. I’m happy that I’ve got a guy, when I foul out, that can go in there and battle the way he can.”
A funny thing happened with Robinson's career fadeout: he didn't fade out. While his lone start for the rest of the year came when Livers sat with a sprained ankle, his share of the minutes actually rose, and with it his efficiency—his post-benching O-Rating was a sparkling 128.5, easily best on the team, and he made over 40% of his threes.
*[My lasting memory of this preseason's media open practice was Robinson yelling "c'mon, Sleep!" and restarting a practice rep that Jon Teske had botched. No coach was necessary and it was clear Robinson's approach wasn't anything out of the ordinary.]
Post specialist. [Campredon]
The real revelation didn't have anything to do with Robinson's shot, however. Yaklich devised a defensive scheme that mostly kept him in the post, playing to his strengths and masking his lack of lateral quickness. Robinson's individual and Michigan's team defense seemingly improved by the game; opponents stuck on the old "iso Duncan" gameplan found themselves putting up tough, low-upside two-pointers.
By the time Michigan traveled to Penn State on February 21st, they'd won five of six games and effectively secured an at-large bid that looked in serious danger mere weeks prior. The defensive progression had continued for long enough that what happened in Happy Valley perhaps shouldn't have been a huge surprise. But, dear reader, I don't know how anyone who'd watched Robinson's first two seasons in a Michigan uniform could react to his soul-snatching block of Lamar Stevens with anything other than a mix of shock, incredulity, and mirth.
In that moment after Stevens hit the deck (he was fine), time froze but for the ball bouncing along the baseline. A flabbergasted official blew the play dead even though the ball never bounced out of bounds and Adbur-Rahkman had reestablished himself inbounds before picking it up. While I'd normally take a crack at college refs, I'm just glad it only looked like someone dropped dead from the play.
Still perfect. [Campredon]
Robinson had a few more signature moments in him after winning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. His bellowing celebration after his blow-by and-one on Gavin Schilling epitomized the raw emotion of the Michigan State rivalry and how much it tilted in Michigan's favor this year. On a team that had more than its fair share of issues at the free-throw line, Robinson played the steady hand down the stretch against the Spartans, making 8-of-11 free throws to ward off any late-game shenanigans.
To nobody's surprise, Robinson also played his part in the Texas A&M shooting gallery, hitting the first of his two triples over a desperation zone defense just as Reggie Miller made the salient point that the Aggies should locate him on the perimeter.
Volatility remained until the bitter end. Robinson sent a Houston coach into a clipboard-slamming tantrum with one shot, but he didn't tally a point in the championship game loss to Villanova, not that any single player's contribution was likely to change that particular outcome. It was the final game of his college career, so it must be mentioned here.
What will ultimately last, however, are the memories of Robinson's unique path to get there and his unlikely and numerous accomplishments on the way. He made five or more three-pointers in a game eight times in his three seasons, tying Nik Stauskas, Daniel Horton, and Dion Harris for second-most in program history behind Sweet Lou Bullock's 16(!). He's fourth on the school leaderboard in three-point makes (237). He played an integral role in back-to-back BTT champion and Sweet Sixteen squads, the second of which made a wholly unexpected run to the national championship game.
He also had the prettiest shot in the game. That image will stick. It's difficult not to given the repetition.
For the opposite reason, that image of Lamar Stevens will stick, too. He died for Duncan Robinson's defensive sins. Michigan will raise a couple new banners this year to show for it.