When Liam Robbins arrived at the University of Minnesota for the first time in the summer, he was literally the biggest man on campus.
"He's all of 7 feet," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said after he first watched workouts of the Drake transfer at the team's practice facility.
In recent Gophers history, there haven't been many true 7-footers, certainly not ones that have made an immediate impact like Robbins, who was just named Oscar Robertson national player of the week. The junior helped lead Minnesota to victories over two ranked opponents last week and will match up with Michigan's 7-1 Hunter Dickinson when the teams meet Wednesday in Ann Arbor.
The No. 16 Gophers (10-2) will look to hand the No. 10 Wolverines (9-0) their first loss, and it could be another game decided in the paint.
"You've got to embrace Liam Robbins," Pitino said. "You've got to post [Robbins] up. You've got to throw it down there. The college game is different from the pros. Big men can do very well if they embrace the physicality of the game."
As accustomed as longtime basketball fans are to seeing 7-footers dominate, it's becoming an increasingly rare sight at all levels of the sport.
The Big Ten stands alone among the six major basketball conferences with four players 6-11 or taller among their top 20 scorers entering this week, including Robbins, Dickinson and Illinois' Kofi Cockburn — all at least 7 feet tall. Iowa's 6-11 Luka Garza is the nation's leading scorer.
"I think more than any conference we have a collection of terrific big guys," Pitino said.
In Sunday's 77-60 victory over Ohio State, Robbins was an inside force with 27 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and four assists. No Gophers player had put up at least 25 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks and four assists in the same game since eventual lottery pick Joel Przybilla — a 7-1 center — in 2000.
Przybilla played during an era when 7-footers still ruled the NBA. They were hot commodities in college basketball. Most players like Robbins in today's game typically take a back seat to high-scoring perimeter players in ball-screen offenses.
But Robbins has faced his fair share of elite true big men in the Big Ten.
Only four games into his Big Ten career, Robbins already has battled in the paint with Cockburn, Garza, and Wisconsin's tandem of 6-10 Micah Potter and 6-11 Nate Reuvers. That helped Robbins adjust to the size difference, tougher competition and physicality differences from the Missouri Valley Conference.
"My first two [Big Ten] games were against Kofi Cockburn and Luka Garza," Robbins said. "Those are two of the most physical post players you're going to find in the nation. Two of the best players in the nation, as well. So, it was a little bit of an adjustment period. I had foul trouble in the first halves."
Robbins had at least four fouls in five of his first eight games and fouled out twice, limiting his impact for the entire 40 minutes. But he averaged 16.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in the six games when he played 25 minutes or more.
Robbins was also honored as Big Ten player of the week after averaging 19.0 points and 10.7 rebounds in three games vs. ranked opponents. Before the Ohio State game, Robbins had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in an 81-56 victory over Michigan State, and he had 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a 71-59 loss at Wisconsin.
The Wolverines beat Maryland and Northwestern last week behind the 255-pound Dickinson, who was named Big Ten freshman of the week. The matchup between Robbins and Dickinson will be a throwback battle of 7-footers.
"You're going up against guys just as big as you," Robbins said. "You just have to be physical and every time down the court you have to be fighting for position constantly. I think that's been the biggest adjustment."
Big Man U
Robbins knows about the impressive recent history of Gophers centers.
His uncle, Ed Conroy, was Pitino's assistant when 6-10 Reggie Lynch of Edina set the school single-season record for blocks and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year on the Gophers' 2017 NCAA tournament team.
"I watched Reggie Lynch play a lot," said Robbins, who leads the Big Ten at 2.8 blocks per game. "He was a fantastic defender. And I think I can bring that same defensive mind-set."
The Gophers, with 6-10 center Daniel Oturu last year, had their first All-America since 1999. Oturu also broke the school's NBA draft drought of 16 years and is now with the Los Angeles Clippers.
While Robbins has plenty of room to grow into a big man as productive as Oturu, it's still rare for a 7-footer to come along with his talent.
The last 7-footer to start for the Gophers on an NCAA tournament team was Jeff Hagen in 2005.
Former Gophers and NBA guard Trent Tucker said Robbins following Oturu and Lynch reminds him of the glory days of the program under coach Jim Dutcher when they were known as Big Man U, producing 6-10 Mychal Thompson, 6-10 Kevin McHale and 7-3 Randy Breuer.
Breuer, an All-America selection, teamed with Tucker to lead the Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten title.
"He can step out and shoot the three, too," said Tucker, who was a TV analyst when the Gophers beat St. Louis on Dec. 20. "But Robbins is a guy who plays well with his back to the basket. When he has the size advantage, he can make some things happen down low for the team."