Center could be the most important position in the Big Ten, considering it's a league known for being physical and rugged — and loaded with talented post players.

The Gophers, who play host to Northwestern on Thursday night, were at their best when they had a formidable presence in the paint with Liam Robbins.

Now they are struggling with the 7-foot junior limited with an ankle injury. It's a situation that also reveals a lack of center depth for the Gophers (13-10, 6-10 Big Ten) that has plagued coach Richard Pitino during his eight seasons.

"You need to have a presence there," Pitino said after a recent loss. "When you take Liam out, it's hard with no low-post threat."

Robbins was a top-10 finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award last month, but his production has been more than cut in half since the injury.

He averaged 13.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and shot 46% from the field before the injury. He's averaging 2.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and shot 2-for-14 combined in losses to Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois.

Despite playing banged up and in foul trouble, Robbins still managed to have seven blocks combined in the past two games.

"He has a fighter's spirit," senior forward Brandon Johnson said. "Since he met me, he said whatever happens during the season he's going to try his 100 percent best to make sure he's able to be out on the floor with us. Liam's my guy. I try to help him out as much as I can."

The 6-8 Johnson has scored in double figures in six of the past seven games. The Western Michigan transfer is really the only inside scoring presence with Robbins hurt, but he's undersized.

Redshirt senior Eric Curry is doing his best with some physical limitations coming off two major knee surgeries in his career. His natural position is at stretch forward and not center.

"Eric brings a lot of good things, but he's not a great scorer down there," Pitino said. "When you got a guy like Liam that's not himself, that's a lot of points [missing]."

Developing big men

The center spot had been a revolving door for Pitino until Cretin-Derham Hall's Daniel Oturu arrived a few years ago.

Oturu started at center as a freshman on an NCAA tournament team in 2019. He surprised even Pitino by being ready for an NBA jump after only two years, ending the program's 16-year draft drought.

Following Oturu's early departure, Robbins transferring from Drake made the Gophers feel like they had a chance to compete again in the Big Ten.

But not allowing another young center to grow and gain experience the past two years has come back to haunt the Gophers, who have relied only on Robbins. Neither 6-10 sophomore Sam Freeman nor 6-10 freshman Martice Mitchell has played much most of this season.

Mitchell, a former four-star recruit, has averaged three minutes in six games. Freeman averaged four minutes in 11 games before finishing with three rebounds, two blocks and two assists in a career-high 16 minutes during Saturday's loss to Illinois.

Recruiting enough centers?

Since Pitino's arrival in 2013, the Gophers had just one high school center recruit that eventually averaged double figures in scoring. That was Oturu. He did it as a freshman (10.8) and during his breakout sophomore All-America season last year (20.1).

The next best non-transfer center was Mali native Bakary Konate, who averaged 2.6 points in his four-year Gophers career.

Pitino went three recruiting classes (2015-17) without bringing in a high school center, but he landed Illinois State transfer and Edina native Reggie Lynch in that span.

In 2016-17, Lynch was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and set the school record for single-season blocks. But when he was suspended a year later, it sank the Gophers frontcourt, even with All-Big Ten power forward Jordan Murphy leading the league in rebounding. Murphy even played as an undersized center at times at 6-6.

Backing up Oturu at center last year and Robbins at times earlier this season was 6-7 power forward Jarvis Omersa, who opted out in December.

Recognizing the need for more depth, Pitino signed 6-11 Treyton Thompson and Kenny Pohto in the 2021 recruiting class. It was the first time he signed two high school centers in one class since 2014.

The problem is, Thompson and Pohto won't arrive until next season. So there's only one way to solve the Gophers' center problems right now.

"Liam Robbins getting healthy would be the answer," Pitino said. "We run a lot of stuff through him."