Duncan Robinson has seen it all. The scattered purple shirts on the sidelines of cozy Chandler Gymnasium in rural New England. The endless sea of maize at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. And recently, the biggest stage of all: the NCAA Div. I national championship game, with 70,000 fans packed in San Antonio’s Alamodome and millions of other viewers tuned into their televisions and phones across the nation.
Robinson’s journey from Williams, a small Div. III liberal arts college, to the University of Michigan, a perennial Div. I powerhouse in the Big Ten Conference, has been everything but traditional —he is believed to be the first player to ever transfer from a Div. III school to a Div. I school with a full scholarship. Not to mention, he’s the only college player to ever play in both Div. III and Div. I national title games, once as an Eph in 2014 and now as a graduating Wolverine.
A late bloomer, Robinson started his path as a 5-7 point guard for The Governor’s Academy in 2008. The New Castle, N.H. native received limited minutes against high school competition until he matured into his 6-8 frame in his junior and senior seasons. However, his late success brought the possibility of scholarship offers. After graduating, Robinson played on an AAU team under Williams alum Michael Crotty Jr. ’04 and also came into contact with Williams’ head coach at the time, Mike Maker. From there, the College would receive what Maker called “the best player he’s ever coached or recruited.” Thanks to Maker’s recruitment efforts, Robinson decided to become an Eph. “Maker always instilled a lot of confidence in me,” he said. “He made me a priority early on and taught me that he prioritized the relationship with not only myself but my family.”
Looking back, Robinson emphasized that he valued his passion for basketball above the noise of recruitment. “I just wanted to play college basketball,” he said. “It wasn’t as important to me the level as much as it was finding the right relationship for me.”
Once an Eph, Robinson made a name for himself early in the NESCAC, starting as a first-year and, with the help of All-American center Michael Mayer ’14, took the Ephs to the NCAA Div. III national championship game, losing on a last second layup to University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Just as the 2014 D3Hoops.com Rookie of the Year and Fourth Team All-American was looking forward to another three years of dominance in Chandler Gymnasium, Maker left to coach at Div. I Marist. With that, Robinson explored his options. “I wasn’t set on leaving, but I had overwhelming feedback that I wasn’t necessary expecting from places I never could have imagined,” he said.
Maker helped put Robinson’s name out to Michigan, sending game film to head coach John Beilein — who worked with Maker during his head coaching stint at West Virginia from 2005 to 2007. From there, Robinson went from walk-on status to a member of the Wolverines on full athletic scholarship. At Michigan, Duncan faced a completely new environment. “It was a little bit of a culture shock,” he recalled. “Obviously, basketball had a lot of differences in terms of the resources at this level and how much of a business it is. And on top of that, the competition level is significantly increased. The school aspect was very different as well — from 2000 people in western Massachusetts to Ann Arbor with 40,000 students.”
Redshirting his first year as a Wolverine, Robinson took the time to acclimate himself to his new environment. “It took some time to adjust, but I think a big part of what made the transition work was my teammates, my coaches and the love I had for basketball — I knew I could at least have that,” he said. Robinson expressed that pursuing basketball at the highest level had always been his dream, explaining, “I knew it was something I couldn’t walk away from and leave on the table. At the end of the day, I knew that I had to trust I made the right decision for me, and I think that year [redshirting] really helped me transition [to Div. I competition].”
During the 2015-16 season, Robinson established his reputation as an efficient scorer, putting up 19 points in his second game as a Wolverine and shooting a perfect 6-for-6, including five 3-pointers. His marksmanship would lead to 95 made 3s and a 45 percent 3-point percentage, second in the Big Ten that season. After starting 27 games as a sophomore, Robinson came off the bench in his junior season, providing the same offensive spark and helping the Wolverines win the Big Ten Conference in the 2016-2017 season.
This year, Robinson flourished at Michigan, earning the honor of Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, an accolade voted on by coaches. He would go on to average 11 points in the Wolverine’s four-game title run in the Big Ten tournament. He made 17 3s during the NCAA tournament, which culminated in an eventual 79-62 loss to Villanova in the national championship game. The forward ends his career at Michigan as the 53rd player in school history to score 1000 points.
Having played the game on both sides of the spectrum of attendance and recognition, Robinson maintained that his love for basketball has been independent from the limelight and fame. “The truth is, all that stuff – like sold-out arenas and national media attention – is cool, but the game is still the same, and it means just as much,” he said. “Playing in sold-out gyms doesn’t make you care any more. I love my teammates the same. I love the game the same. I think one of the things I’m really taking away is that the basketball experience isn’t as drastically different as a lot of people think. On the day-to-day level, there [are] for sure differences, but the stuff that really matters is relationships and how much you care and what you put into the game.”
Whether in the NBA, G-League or overseas, Robinson is looking forward to playing more basketball after his unique collegiate career. No matter where he ends up playing, we know one thing’s for certain: He doesn’t mind a small crowd.