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August 8, 2014
How Duncan Robinson made the leap from Division III to Michigan
Jay Tilton's phone would not stop ringing during the second half of the 2012-13 basketball season.
Coaches from Division I programs throughout the nation called the Exeter Academy coach every day to confide that they regretted not offering a scholarship to senior Duncan Robinson. The sweet-shooting forward had committed to Division III Williams College a couple months earlier in part because he did not have a single Division I scholarship offer at that time.
"I heard from coaches constantly," Tilton said. "Nobody tried to pry him away from Williams, but they all said, 'Man, we missed on that one.'"
Schools who let their chance to land Robinson slip through their fingers only became more remorseful this past season when the Williams College freshman showcased an improved all-around game to go with his trademark outside shooting. Robinson averaged 17.1 points per game, earned Division III freshman of the year honors and led Williams to an appearance in the national title game, a dominant enough season that he began to wonder if he owed it to himself to see if he could thrive at the sport's highest level as well.
When Williams College coach Mike Maker accepted another job in June, Robinson decided that he too would explore his options. The flood of interest from well-known Division I programs initially surprised Robinson, but he eventually narrowed his options to Michigan and Davidson, accepting a scholarship from the Wolverines on Wednesday after a visit to Ann Arbor earlier in the week.
It's difficult to estimate how many players have transferred from Division III to Division I because the NCAA does not keep those stats, but anecdotal evidence suggests the jump to a high-major program is very rare. The gap in speed, strength and skill between the Big Ten and the New England Small College Athletic Conference is significant enough that few players would be able to successfully make that transition.
Between his lanky 6-foot-8 frame, 45.3 percent 3-point shooting and shrewd decision-making with the ball in his hands, Robinson has a far better chance than most. He'll spend a redshirt season next year adding muscle and acclimating himself in practice before competing for playing time at both forward spots the next three seasons.
"I have no doubt about his ability to play at an elite level at Michigan," said Michael Crotty Jr., who coached Robinson on the Middlesex Magic AAU team in New England. "I don't think there's a school in the country where he couldn't be an impact player, but I think Michigan has an ability to be a remarkable fit. With [John] Beilein running a system very similar to what he's run at Williams and at Exeter, he will have a great understanding of the system and it's a system that's really tailor-made for his skill set."
Why would a potential impact player at Michigan not have received a single Division I scholarship offer by the start of his final high school season? Those familiar with Robinson's recruitment offer a couple of ideas.
He stood only 5-foot-7 entering his freshman year at Governor's Academy in Byfield, Mass. He suffered an ill-timed back injury that hampered him during the all-important summer before his senior year at Exeter. And even after his growth spurt, he still needed to build the muscle necessary to absorb contact and finish at the rim.
Those drawbacks didn't faze Williams College coach Mike Maker because he knew Robinson had the outside shooting, ball skills, character and work ethic to thrive in his program. By November of Robinson's final year of high school, Maker had seen enough to offer admission and a spot on the team at Williams, a small but prestigious Massachusetts liberal arts school that is annually among the nation's elite Division III basketball programs.
Though Robinson could have opted to wait until the spring in hopes of drumming up Division I interest, he knew there was no guarantee one of the Patriot League or Ivy League schools recruiting him would make an offer. Furthermore, Williams was appealing to an academic-oriented kid who valued playing for a winning program and receiving an excellent education.
"We felt very fortunate to get him, but I also thought it was a good match at the time," said Maker, now the coach at Marist. "Duncan's family valued education and certainly Williams fit what they were looking for."
Signs that Maker had landed a steal came quickly in the ensuing months.
A bigger, stronger Robinson became confident doing more than just taking catch-and-shoot jumpers as he led Exeter to a 25-1 record and the NEPSAC Class A Championship. He then starred on a team that toured in China the following summer, even scoring 43 points in one game against a team of professional players.
Robinson continued to progress rapidly at Williams, impressing his coaches not only by shooting 55.7 percent from the field during games but also by putting in extra work in the gym on off days morning, afternoon and night. The only complaint Maker could muster regarding Robinson was that he was too eager to try to set up a teammate for a basket instead of taking advantage of a mismatch to score himself.
Since Robinson's lone year at Williams was so successful and enjoyable, leaving to fulfill his dream of playing at a Division I program was a tougher decision for him than many might expect. The only way he was willing to leave Williams was if he found a school with a winning program, an elite academic reputation and a coach whose system and style suited him.
Creighton, Boston College and Providence were among the many teams that reached out to Robinson upon learning that he had interest in transferring, but he and his coaches made it a point to contact Michigan to see if Beilein might be interested. It surely also helped Robinson that Maker was a former assistant under Beilein at West Virginia and that the Michigan coach has enjoyed tremendous success recruiting New England prep school products recently.
"Coach Beilein was very intrigued right away," Tilton said. "He has a great eye for evaluating a special kind of talent. My impression is he is always going after great people first for his programs and he has a keen eye for kids who fit the way he likes to play."
The two major worries for Robinson were how big a role Michigan envisioned for him and how he would fit in with the Wolverines players.
One of those concerns melted away on his visit when hosts Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht welcomed him graciously and the rest of the team made him feel wanted as well. The other disappeared when Beilein and his staff assured him they wouldn't be offering a scholarship unless they believed he had a chance to carve out significant playing time in the coming years.
"His goal is to be an impact player," Tilton said. "He's not a kid looking to play a small role. He'll put the effort and energy in. I have not coached a kid with more passion for the game of basketball. He has a tremendous work ethic. He spends hours and hours on his craft. Basketball is his social life, and that's why he has been able to put himself in this position."
That work ethic is critical because what he is attempting is not easy.
Few Division III players would dare to make the jump to a mid-level Division I program. Robinson is making the leap to one that played in the national title game two years ago and the Elite Eight last season.