Liam Robbins and Brandon Johnson would play leading roles in helping the Gophers basketball team replace All-America and NBA draft pick Daniel Oturu this season.
At least that was the expectation Richard Pitino had until both transfers battled through injuries into the first game last week.
Pitino adapted with more of a big man-by-committee approach the first two games, but the Gophers (2-0) hope Robbins and Johnson continue to progress Monday in a rematch vs. Loyola Marymount.
“Physically they look pretty healthy, which is great,” Pitino said. “But there are still some things like getting in shape. I think Brandon and Liam saw that foul trouble is going to put you on the bench. And you’re not going to be able to get into a rhythm.”
Johnson is an experienced and versatile 6-8 forward from Western Michigan. At Drake, Robbins had all the talent to be a go-to 7-footer who can stretch the floor and finish at the rim.
“I had an injury close to when our season started,” Robbins said. “That didn’t really help, but I felt good out there. It’s just trying to get a feel out there on the court, especially with a new team.”
Whether it’s Jarvis Omersa, Eric Curry or Isaiah Ihnen, Pitino has looked to other frontcourt players to give the Gophers a spark when Robbins and Johnson are on the bench, especially in the first half of Saturday’s 88-73 victory against LMU.
The Lions (1-1), who start 7-3 center Mattias Markusson, have overall size comparable to what the Gophers will face in the Big Ten. They made it tough for Pitino’s team to compete physically in the paint once Robbins left the game early with foul trouble.
After hitting the first of his two three-pointers Saturday, Robbins sat because of his second foul — on an over-the-back call with 16 minutes left in the first half — and LMU went on a 12-4 run to take a 19-10 lead. But junior guard Marcus Carr fueled a comeback by scoring 22 of his 28 points in the first half to provide the Gophers with a 41-37 halftime lead.
Minnesota maintained control after establishing their frontcourt in the second half.
Johnson, who averaged 15.4 points as a junior last season, scored only four points on 1-for-3 shooting in Wednesday’s season-opening 99-69 victory against Wisconsin-Green Bay. The 6-8 graduate transfer was more aggressive Saturday after going scoreless in the first half. Johnson scored all of his eight points to help Minnesota stretch its lead in the second half.
After missing three weeks in the fall recovering from an ankle injury, Johnson wasn’t able to win the starting power forward spot. He was still supportive of redshirt senior Eric Curry getting the opportunity to start after missing two seasons because of major knee injuries.
“Eric has all the tools to be a great player in this league, and now he has the opportunity to show it,” Johnson said. “I’m extremely happy for him.”
Pitino picks his spots, though, to have Curry play. It’s more important for the Gophers to have the 6-9 co-captain at full strength when they open Big Ten play Dec. 15 at Illinois.
With Robbins playing only six minutes in the first half Saturday, Omersa played center despite giving up 9 inches to Markusson. It was a team effort, but Markusson was limited to six points after having 19 in his first game vs. Southern Utah last week.
Markusson was recruited by the Gophers when he entered the transfer portal in the spring before returning to LMU. Robbins ended up being Pitino’s replacement for Oturu.
Robbins, a Davenport, Iowa, native, hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in two games, but it’s easy to imagine how dominant he could be without foul trouble. He’s averaging 21.6 points, 18.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per 40 minutes.
On Saturday, Robbins and Johnson combined for 18 points and 15 rebounds. They have the potential to make an even bigger impact for the Gophers once it comes together.
“Our frontcourt, I have 100 percent faith in,” Johnson said. “I believe we can open some eyes up in the Big Ten and pretty much around the country as well.”