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From D-III to the Alamodome: The unlikely journey of Michigan's Duncan Robinson

SAN ANTONIO – After Michigan outlasted Loyola Chicago to secure its spot in the national championship game on Monday, Wolverine senior Duncan Robinson climbed the stands in the immense Alamodome to visit his family. On his trek up to Row 34 of Section 117, he heard the calls of congratulations from the vibrant throng of Michigan fans in the Alamodome.

And when he finally found his supporting contingent, Robinson took a breath to take in the breadth of his journey as the first player to participate in both the Division III and Division I Final Fours. Robinson looked around the vastness of a football stadium filled to capacity and said to his AAU coach, Mike Crotty: “It’s unbelievable to see it all. I can’t believe every seat is full.”

Robinson’s journey from Division III Williams College, a bucolic bastion of academia in Western Massachusetts, to mighty Michigan is equal parts unprecedented and unbelievable. Robinson is the paragon of a late-bloomer – 5-foot-6 as a high school freshman, a bench warmer as a high school junior and requiring a prep school year in New Hampshire to reach Division III.

There’s no better metric to show the range of Robinson’s journey than the stadium size of his D-III title game four years ago. In 2014 as a freshman at Williams, he played in the national title game in Salem, Virginia, for Williams in front of 2,681 people at the Salem Civic Center. On Saturday, he played in front of 68,257 at the Alamodome. Robinson joked that the team took a police escort to the Salem Civic Center back in 2014 but didn’t need one because there wasn’t any traffic. “You could fit six of that arena in the Alamodome,” Crotty said. “The scale is so wildly different.”

Michigan’s Duncan Robinson (22)shoots during a practice session for the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, March 30, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)Robinson is hoping the ending on Monday night is wildly different as well. Williams lost to UW-Whitewater on a basket with less than a second remaining in the title game back in 2014. Robinson missed a potential game-winning 35-footer at the buzzer, likely making this symmetrical story line a pinch more painful that he’s let on. “I hope there isn’t too much symmetry,” he said with a smile. “Some symmetry is OK, and I’m certainly appreciative of it.”

What’s interesting in listening to Robinson attempt to articulate his journey in San Antonio this weekend is his attempt to get across an important point – cut out the stadium size, media glare and national interest, and the essence of both Final Fours is exactly the same. His Williams team practiced year-round, prepared with rigor and poured their soul into every game. The magnitude of the games to the players involved doesn’t change with the level, stadium size or television audience. (“You love your brothers the same,” he said of both sets of teammates). Robinson has been careful when asked – and he’s been asked over and over – about his unusual journey to not downplay or dismiss the Division III experience, which he clearly treasured. “The difference isn’t as glaring as you might think,” Robinson said on Sunday. He added: “I loved that experience as well, the same way I love this one.”

Robinson, who has grown into a 6-foot-8 redshirt senior, also pointed out that he’d have stayed at Williams if not for the departure of Mike Maker, the coach who recruited him. Maker left for the Marist College after Robinson’s freshman season, when he’d been named the top freshman in Division III. When Robinson hit the open market, he was blown away by the level of interest. (Things didn’t work out as well for Maker, who got fired in March in the wake of a 6-25 season). Robinson’s choice came down to Davidson, Boston College and Michigan, and he ultimately picked Michigan, in part, because Maker is a former John Beilein assistant and ran a similar system. “He’s where he belongs,” said Maker, who worked for Beilein at West Virginia. “He reminds me of the players we had at West Virginia. High character, high IQ and high skills.”

Robinson, who is from New Castle, New Hampshire, also had an unusual ally in Crotty, his AAU coach with the Middlesex (Mass.) Magic. Crotty led Williams to the 2003 national title and was an advocate of him attending there out of prep school. Williams College is an easy sell, as it’s annually ranked as one of the country’s top academic schools and has been a Division III juggernaut. Maker called it “the Duke of Division III.” Robinson said Crotty’s openness to him leaving Williams strengthened their relationship, as he knew of Crotty’s affinity and attachment to the school. (They remain close, as Crotty leaves him a voicemail on every game day that says: “You are the best shooter in the world.”)

Duncan Robinson in his AAU days (Courtesy of Mike Crotty)

Robinson’s recruiting journey isn’t the traditional one of the overlooked high school star that got ignored by Division I programs. By his own admission, Robinson was so short and skinny and undeveloped that it was understandable that it took some time for people to recognize him. After all, when you warm the bench your junior year of high school, it isn’t typically the start of a career arc that ends playing at Michigan in the national title game.

“I remember thinking we should have taken him as a walk-on, and what the heck are all the Ivies thinking [not taking him],” said former BC assistant coach Nat Graham, now at Penn. “That’s laughable now, but it was clear he loved basketball and is an elite shooter and had more game than anyone gave him credit for.”

Robinson didn’t coast to becoming a key cog in Beilein’s machine at Michigan. He gained 20 pounds as a redshirt and was alternately competitive and occasionally overwhelmed in practice early on. He recalls in one of his first games at Michigan, Xavier’s J.P. Macura screaming some version of “Go Back to Division III!” – with a few expletives spliced in – the entire game. Robinson soon proved he belonged, as he’s averaged 9.3 points and nearly 25 minutes in his three seasons since becoming eligible. He’s deeply appreciative of the opportunity Beilein gave him: “To get a national championship for him – it’s crazy to even say that – well, it would mean the world to me.”

On Saturday, Robinson scored nine points in 28 minutes off the bench to help beat Loyola Chicago. On Monday, there will be nearly 70,000 people in the stands again to see if he can help No. 3 Michigan upset No. 1 Villanova. This time, Robinson assuredly wants to make sure he helps get the ending right.

“I think it’s already storybook,” Maker said, “no matter how it finishes.”

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