Drake transfer Liam Robbins, the top frontcourt player on the Gophers basketball team, finally heard the news Wednesday he had been waiting for all summer.
The NCAA accepted his waiver to be eligible to play for the 2020-21 season. Current rules require non-graduates to sit out one season after transferring.
“We were pretty confident I would get my waiver,” Robbins said on a video conference call. “You just never know, so we were just hopeful. It took a while.”
Robbins entered the transfer portal in April. The 7-footer from Davenport, Iowa, heard from 25 schools, including Duke and Kentucky. But he quickly committed to the Gophers to play with his cousin and uncle. Hunt Conroy is a senior walk-on guard. Ed Conroy is an associate head coach and the longest-tenured assistant under Richard Pitino.
“I was looking after the season and thinking about what’s next,” Robbins said. “I got a lot of calls. I was very honored that some big names called me. Pitino called me. Him being close with my uncle and having him on staff, it just gave me more confidence to take the next step. Pitino told me I could [really] help the Gophers.”
The Gophers previously had bad luck with the NCAA waiver process when Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr, an eventual All-Big Ten guard, had his waiver requests denied in 2018.
Pitino, who has to replace All-America center Daniel Oturu, feels Robbins has the talent to be another instant impact transfer like Carr.
“He’s all of 7-feet, and he’s skilled,” Pitino said this summer. “He has an understanding and knack to score the basketball. He can hit threes. He’s got absolutely really good low-post moves. To me, he’ll be one of the better bigs in the conference.”
As a high school senior, Robbins weighed 300 pounds and decided to attend a year of prep school at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas after receiving no Division I scholarship offers. He now is 235 pounds. In two years, he transformed his body to become one of the top big men in the Missouri Valley Conference.
After a promising freshman year at Drake, Robbins tripled his scoring (14.1) and doubled his rebounding (7.1) averages in 2019-20. As an All-MVC second-team selection, he broke the school record with 99 blocks, ranking fifth nationally with 2.9 per game.
“Last year was the first chance I got to play 20-plus minutes,” Robbins said. “So I have a lot of confidence instilled in me and belief in myself.”
Since arriving on campus in June, Robbins has enjoyed the grind of preparing himself for Big Ten basketball.
“I’m going to have the same approach I’ve had my whole career with trying to get better,” he said. “I’ll work on getting stronger. Just being at the University of Minnesota’s facilities, I’ll do that. And I’m working on my shot, so that I can be more versatile. I want to be a threat to space the floor and not just clog up the paint.”
The Gophers have another waiver to send with Utah transfer Both Gach. But the 6-7 guard from Austin, Minn., could be cleared by the NCAA faster than Robbins because he’s returning home to Minnesota.
“His work ethic is really incredible,” Robbins said about Gach. “He’s really talented.”
The Gophers return starting guards Carr and Gabe Kalscheur from a 15-16 team last season. Pitino’s incoming class has three high school players (Jamal Mashburn Jr., David Mutaf and Martice Mitchell) and three transfers (Robbins, Gach and former Western Michigan forward Brandon Johnson).
Johnson, a 6-8 senior and potential frontcourt starter, moved in with Robbins on Wednesday. Johnson is already imagining how the Gophers’ next big thing at center can make a difference with him inside this season.
“He’s someone who can impact shots,” Johnson said. “I know with both of us working together, it would be tough for teams to score in the paint on us. We would have so much length on the defensive end.”