Coach John Beilein sees similarities between Villanova and Loyola, and shares his philosophy on the athletic training and development of recruits. "You're not amassing talent, you're building a team."
Thirty-three years ago, Mike Maker, then 19, settled in to watch the NCAA championship game.
He was rooting for the underdog — and eventual champion — Villanova. His brother, Wyatt, was a backup center on the team.
On Monday night, Maker was preparing to again cheer hard for the darkhorse — but this time it was to be Michigan, against, of all teams, Villanova. And Wyatt, well, deal with it.
“Yeah, it’s caused a little family friction,” Maker said, with a slight chuckle. “But he knows where I stand, who I’m rooting for. Go blue.”
Maker has played a significant yet little-talked-about role in Michigan’s run to its seventh national-championship-game appearance, as the men’s basketball coach at little old Williams College, a private, Division III, liberal-arts school in western Massachusetts, barely more than a deep 3-ball from the New York and Vermont borders.
Maker, you see, was the coach who picked up the phone back in June 2014, called John Beilein at Michigan and said, more or less:
I’ve got a kid you need to check out.
His name is Duncan Robinson.
And, boy, he can shoot.
Here’s some film.
Kids transfer from Division III to Division I more frequently than you’d think. It happens. But it’s practically unheard of to do so with a full scholarship in hand.
But Beilein took that leap of faith, on Maker’s recommendation, and, nearly four years later, on Monday night in San Antonio, Robinson was to become the first man ever to play in both a Division III and Division I championship game.
“I never doubted that he could play for Coach Beilein,” said Maker, whose relationship with Beilein goes way back — he was on Beilein’s staff at West Virginia from 2005-07. “Did I think he’d be named sixth man of the year in the Big Ten, and all that, am I surprised? No. Now, did I definitely know he was gonna have that kind of impact? I can’t say that I did.
“But I always said Duncan can play at the highest level of basketball, and I’m talking one more step.
“He keeps getting better and better. It’s just a great story, obviously.”
‘IT’S SO REWARDING’
Wanna know something interesting?
It wasn’t a slam-dunk for Robinson to leave Williams for Michigan.
“What gets lost, even though it’s a no-brainer basketball-wise for Duncan to make the leap, it was not an easy decision for him,” Maker said. “Those who understand the education Williams offers and the proximity to family, it was not easy for him to make that decision.”
Williams is an extraordinary institution — No. 1 in the country among liberal-arts schools, per U.S. News & World Report — with enrollment barely over 2,000, but with who’s-who alumni base that include the likes of George Steinbrenner, Stephen Sondheim, Mika Brzezinski, even Jim Briggs, the son of a former Detroit Tigers owner who later went on to coach the baseball team at Williams.
And education is important in the Robinson household, run by the woman Maker calls “the rock” of the family, Duncan’s mother, Elisabeth. And so is family. Robinson grew up not far from Williams, in New Castle, N.H., and played his high-school ball at Phillips Exeter Academy.
But following the 2014 season, after Williams had made the Division III championship game (losing to Wisconsin-Whitewater), Maker was offered a job at Division I Marist, and took it.
Only then did Robinson even consider leaving.
“He came to me and asked me, ‘Do you think I could play at the highest level, and if so, would you call Coach Beilein?” Maker recalled Monday morning, in a phone interview with The Detroit News. “And I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and, ‘Yes, I will.’
“He always had an ambition to play at the highest level, and I really believed where he belongs is on college basketball’s biggest stage.”
It doesn’t get any bigger than Monday night’s stage, at the Alamodome.
Just ask Robinson, who last week tried his best to compare the DIII championship game and this one.
“I was telling someone, I was hyped up about our Final Four back my freshman year, and we got a police escort to the game,” said Robinson, the youngest of three siblings, who turns 24 later this month. “Not that it was needed.
“Because there’s no traffic in Salem, Va.”
Tickets were $25, $12.50 for students. Attendance was 2,681.
Robinson’s career didn’t go as smoothly as the national narrative these days would have you believe. He didn’t just snap his fingers and go from DIII title game to DI title game. It was a long process, with lots of ups and just as many downs. Despite his great numbers at Williams — he scored 548 points, averaging 17.1 a game, with a career-best of 30 in the Division III semifinal victory — he was far from a finished product. While he always had the basketball acumen, and was quite familiar with Beilein’s unique systems and terminology, which Maker did his best to implement at Williams, his body wasn’t anywhere close to a Division I body. He was a 6-foot-8 string bean who “didn’t have a hair on his body,” Maker said.
He used that sit-out year in Ann Arbor to work on that with Jon Sanderson, who runs the unofficially titled and unbelievably grueling, “Camp Sanderson,” but it took time. A lot of time. While he got off to a hot start in 2015-16, making 3’s like they were uncontested layups, he hit a wall early in Big Ten Conference play, where the bodies are bigger and bruising. He got pushed around, and he wore down. He couldn’t find the paint with a GPS; he played defense with all the enthusiasm of dish duty after a Thanksgiving feast.
After averaging 11.2 points in 28.9 minutes as a red-shirt sophomore, he averaged 7.7 in 20.1 as a redshirt junior — when the seeds of toughness started to blossom (just check out that gnarly shiner he got, and embraced, during last year’s NCAA Tournament).
Then, in this, his redshirt senior season, he started the first 18 games, including the first three Big Ten games, before Beilein had an idea. He decided Robinson could become a weapon off the bench, and that was his role for all but one game the rest of the season. What Michigan has seen is a fresher Robinson, a Robinson who plays defense and isn’t afraid to drive on opponents. He rebounds, blocks, even occasionally steals.
And, of course, he still shoots the 3’s, hitting one of his team’s biggest in the second-half comeback against Loyola-Chicago on Saturday night.
Robinson still isn’t a physical beast. He draws comparisons to Macklemore, not Mr. Universe. But he was 190 when he arrived at Michigan, 215 now.
“He’s really improved his body since being at Michigan, obviously,” said Maker, whose career arc has gone the opposite direction of Robinson’s — he was fired last month after four tough years at Marist. “He’s become a solid and reliable defender, and that was always his Achilles’ heel.
“He’s blossomed both on and off the court, it’s so rewarding to see.”
‘HAVING THE COURAGE’
Robinson isn’t the only Williams-Michigan connection. Former Michigan basketball player Al Shaw coached at Williams from 1949-73, taking the team to three NCAA Tournaments. Dick Quinn, Williams historian and the school’s SID, jokes Robinson is “payback” for Shaw — who got the Williams job a few years after some schlub named John Wooden didn’t get the job.
Five of Robinson’s former Williams teammates are in San Antonio to cheer him on, and Maker, who left San Antonio over the weekend for some family time, will watch from afar.
“If I wasn’t with my family for Easter,” said Maker, “there’s no place I’d rather be than watching Duncan.”
Robinson ended up at Williams because of the education, but also because of some Maker connections. Robinson’s prep coach at Phillips Exeter, Jay Tilton, and Maker are good friends, having worked together at Dartmouth years ago. His AAU coach with the Middlesex Magic, Michael Crotty Jr., was the point guard on Williams’ 2003 national-championship team.
When it came time to choose a school, Robinson, who led his school to its first state title, had one Division II offer, and plenty of Division III interest.
But no school had the sterling reputation of Williams — whose nickname is the Ephs (pronounced Eeephs), an abbreviated take on college founder Ephraim Williams’ name, and whose mascot is a purple cow — both in basketball and education.
When it came time to choose his next school, with Maker departing for Marist, Robinson had a lot more interest, including from Davidson — which had leaped onto the basketball map six years earlier, when a kid named Steph Curry led the school to the Elite Eight.
But he became a Michigan man.
“The only reason I looked to leave was because my coach had taken another job,” Robinson said. “It’s one of those situations where you got to bet on yourself and I knew that if it was something that I had turned down, I would’ve had to live with that the rest of my life.
“Obviously, things turned out pretty well, so I’m thankful for having the courage to have made it.”
Robinson arrived on campus the same time as a highly-praised recruiting class, including five-star Kameron Chatman, four-star D.J. Wilson and three-stars Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Ricky Doyle. Aubrey Dawkins was heralded, too. Robinson was a fish out of water — a lobster out of New England? — like he had “DIII” tattooed on his forehead that first year. It’s why then-assistant coach LaVall Jordan told him, “Don’t make friends now, make friends later.” In other words, fight for respect. And he sure earned it, as Michigan’s top scout-team player.
Four years later, only Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman are left from that seven-member class. (Austin Hatch has become a student-assistant coach.)
“You’re talking about a small, liberal-arts college, 2,000 students, one-streetlight town, to one of the major universities and a Hall-of-Fame coach and Power-Five conference and all that,” Maker said. “He has a lot of people in his corner pulling for him.
“It’s been an incredible run and I’m so proud of everything he’s been able to accomplish.”
Michigan vs. Villanova
Tip-off: 9:20 p.m. Monday, Alamodome, San Antonio
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 33-7; No. 1 seed Villanova 35-4