With his hometown of Davenport only an hour away from the University of Iowa, Liam Robbins couldn't avoid summertime chatter about the dominance of All-American center Luka Garza.
It only got worse when the 7-foot Robbins became a college basketball star in his own right at nearby Drake in Des Moines, and he transferred to play for the Gophers in the Big Ten.
"People in my area are obviously huge Hawkeyes' fans," Robbins said. "They love Garza. They don't care if you're one of their own. They're going to cheer against you."
On Friday night, Robbins will play his first game with the Gophers (7-1) against Iowa (7-1) and Garza, the team and star that folks in his own hometown are going crazy over.
Robbins is in his comfort zone, though, playing on a Minnesota team with his uncle and cousin, feeling as much at home with the Gophers as anywhere else.
"It's definitely a blessing," Robbins said. "There's a pandemic going on, so to be able see my uncle and cousin every day on [and off] the court is a huge blessing. And I'm fortunate to have that opportunity."
Gophers associate head coach Ed Conroy often is in his nephew's ear, either on the sideline to give him pointers during the game or pushing him harder during drills with the big men.
Conroy's son, Hunt, has enjoyed being coached by his father, but he jokes that Robbins has spent more time now getting grilled by his dad than he did in the last three years.
"I'm sure he's hard on him a little bit," Hunt Conroy said. "But he only wants the best for Liam. And Liam understands he just wants to make him better, which is huge."
Robbins and Hunt Conroy teaming up with the Gophers never seemed possible when they were on separate paths attending high schools a year apart in different parts of the country.
Hunt Conroy, whose older brother, Riley, played for their father at Tulane, grew up in New Orleans. He didn't play for their father until joining the U as a freshman walk-on in 2017-18. Ed Conroy, a former college head coach at Tulane and the Citadel, started on Richard Pitino's staff in 2016-17.
At the time, Robbins was nearly 300 pounds and heading to prep school with zero Division I scholarships after his senior year at Assumption High School in Davenport.
His uncle, Ed, and his mother, Bridget, were among seven siblings who were prominent athletes at Assumption. Robbins, who left home for Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, was considered raw and a major project.
"I hit a late growth spurt," Robbins said. "Going into my junior and senior year, I grew about eight inches [to 6-11] and I weighed quite a bit."
Robbins' dreams of experiencing high-major Division I basketball had to be realized through his family first. He watched on TV when Hunt Conroy scored his first basket for the Gophers three years ago. He saw both his cousin and uncle make the NCAA tournament and beat Louisville in 2019.
Meanwhile, Robbins was becoming an intriguing prospect after an incredible physical transformation. He shed nearly 70 pounds between prep school and his freshman year in college. The weight dropped fast once he changed his diet and gained muscle through consistent strength training.
"He completely changed his body," Hunt Conroy said. "He got way more skilled. Really took everything serious to get where he is."
Big Ten arrival
A couple hours from home in Des Moines, Robbins became the talk of the town at Drake last season.
The Bulldogs had never seen a shot-blocking talent like him. In his second year, Robbins earned All-Missouri Valley second-team honors, leading Drake in scoring (14.1), rebounding (7.1) and setting the school record with 99 blocks.
It was the first time in his career he averaged 20-plus minutes per game, but Robbins thought he was ready for bigger and better competition.
The Gophers were the favorites this spring when Robbins entered the transfer portal. Pitino sold Robbins on being good enough to follow Daniel Oturu to the NBA one day, but the family connection was critical.
Annual family gatherings at a resort in St. Germaine, Wis. are where Robbins and Conroy had most of their fun together growing up. They've continued that bond as roommates on Minnesota's campus.
Since the summer, Robbins and Conroy worked out together daily at the Gophers' facilities. They took fishing trips on the Mississippi River, competing to catch the biggest smallmouth bass or northern pike.
"It's been incredible," Conroy said. "Growing up in different parts of the country, we never really thought this would be a possibility. It's been a lot of fun. We've been getting along great. It's just nice having family here."
Realistically, Robbins wasn't expected to become the Gophers' next great big man overnight, but "I think Robbins is key to the Minnesota team," Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said.
"If they can establish some consistency in the post with the scoring of [Marcus Carr and Both Gach] that makes them tough to defend," Bardo added.
Although he's experienced foul trouble in five of his first eight Gophers games, Robbins is third on the team in scoring (11.9), first in rebounding (6.8) and second in the Big Ten in blocks (2.4). He's also shooting 5-for-14 from three-point range.
His potential was evident with a 27-point, five-block game vs. Missouri-Kansas City on Dec. 10. But Robbins also fouled out in 16 minutes in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 15, resulting in Kofi Cockburn's 33 points in a 92-65 loss at Illinois.
"He's a terrific shot blocker," Pitino said of Robbins. "But there's got to be a balance there between when to wall up or when to go for the block."
The Gophers need Robbins to learn quickly how to stay on the floor and make an impact, especially with the schedule only getting tougher. The next seven games are against ranked opponents in Big Ten play, including a rematch against the Hawkeyes on Jan. 10 in Iowa City.
Garza won't be the only elite big man Robbins could face on a nightly basis.
"Every night you have to be mentally ready," he said. "You're going to be going up against some of the best centers in college basketball. I feel like it can only get you better."