Niyo: UM’s Robinson validates leap with some ‘Magic’

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Dayton — John Beilein called it validation. He also called it “Magic,” though, and while one play won’t magically make a season — or a career — there’s still a chance yet it could make a difference.

For Duncan Robinson, the clutch 3-pointer that kept alive Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes last week in Indianapolis was exactly the kind of splash he’d hoped to make when he took this leap of faith.

And that his coach had the confidence to conjure up that call, dusting off a play he hadn’t used in years and dialing it up for Robinson, the Division III transfer living out his hoop dream playing for the Wolverines, well, “That’s pretty exciting, too,” he admits.

“It means a lot,” said Robinson, whose game-tying shot in overtime against Northwestern — a nifty give-and-go off an inbounds play with 46 seconds left — made everything else possible for Michigan in that bid-clinching Big Ten tournament run.

Beilein calls the play “Magic” because he lifted it from one of Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy’s old playbooks with the Magic. He says he put it in for Tim Hardaway Jr. once upon a time, “but we’ve never had to use it, so it’s not even out there on a scouting report in the last 3-4 years.” They still practice it once a week, though, “and it seems like Duncan makes it every time.”

So when he did again last Thursday, knotting the score with Northwestern and setting the stage for Zak Irvin’s winner, capping off a game-high, 21-point effort for Robinson — his best shooting performance in a month or more — it just “validated why he’s here,” Beilein said.

Making adjustments

That he is here, and what that means, isn’t lost on Robinson as he prepares for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament opener tonight against Tulsa in the First Four at University of Dayton Arena. It certainly wasn’t last weekend when the Wolverines gathered for a nerve-racking wait as CBS unveiled the brackets with a two-hour selection show.

Two years ago, Robinson was playing for Williams College, a Division III power in western Massachusetts. The Ephs — rhymes with chiefs — gathered in their coach’s office to watch that selection show on a live-stream webcast. And after their at-large bid was announced, “I might have gotten one text,” Robinson laughed.

“From my mom,” he added.

March Madness isn�t foreign to UM�s Wagner

This time, it was a little different. But so is everything these days for Robinson, who’s still adjusting after deciding to transfer from Williams after that freshman season. Williams College made it all the way to the Division III national championship game in 2014, losing on a last-second shot. (The game actually ended with Robinson’s desperation heave as time expired.)

But the coach who’d recruited Robinson to Williams, Mike Maker, left to take the top job at Marist. (A vacancy created by Van Gundy hiring away Jeff Bower to be the Pistons general manager, as luck would have it.) And Maker, a former assistant to Beilein at West Virginia, helped put Robinson on the radar at Michigan, where the offensive system fit his game and the roster was about to lose a dead-eye shooter to the NBA in Nik Stauskas.

The scholarship offer didn’t take long once Beilein watched Robinson’s film. Robinson, who hadn’t gotten any Division I offers coming out of high school — or the extra prep academy year that landed him at Williams — didn’t hesitate, either.

But after spending his first full year in big-time college athletics bulking up — he gained 25 pounds while sitting out — his sophomore season has brought its share of growing pains. Robinson, a 6-foot-8, 210-pound guard/forward, began the year as a reserve playing 15-20 minutes off the bench. He eventually moved into the starting lineup in mid-December, replacing Aubrey Dawkins. And when Caris LeVert went down with an injury, the demands grew even more.

It showed, too. Robinson hit nearly 60 percent of his 3-pointers (47-for-79, 59.5 percent) in nonconference. But he shot 35.2 percent (43-for-122) in Big Ten as the competition got tougher and the open looks harder to find.

New challenges

Still, that leaves Robinson, who also hit a tying 3-pointer in the final minute of last Friday’s upset of Indiana, at 44.8 percent (90-for-201) from deep this season. And as Beilein noted, his sharpshooting predecessor, Stauskas, had nearly identical stats as a sophomore, hitting 92-of-208 3-pointers. One key difference, though: Stauskas shot 204 free throws that year; Robinson, mostly a catch-and-shoot option right now, has taken 42.

“There’s many times that I looked at him almost like a freshman going through this for the first time,” Beilein said. “He hadn’t seen the quickness, the length, the strength, the big men that he has to shoot over, the scouting reports that he sees right now. And so I’ve just said, ‘Hey, you’ve got three years to play at Michigan. There’s a process that you’re going to go through.’

And without pressing too much, Beilein, in his 38th season as a college coach, gently reminds the 21-year-old that the process is just beginning — “There’s so many things he’s got to get better on,” the coach says — and the learning curve only gets steeper from here.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Robinson said. “You’re gonna have days where shots aren’t going in, and maybe stretches … and that can be tough. But you just trust the repetition, stay focused, eliminate the distractions and try to stay locked in.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better at it since I’ve been here. Obviously, being on this stage for the first time, there’s new challenges. But I’m getting better at it.”