DAYTON — Mount St. Mary’s completed the tall task of winning the first NCAA Tournament game of 2017 by knocking off New Orleans on Tuesday night in Dayton. But they needed the help of Division I college basketball’s shortest player to get it done.
Junior Robinson is listed at just 5’5 in Mount St. Mary’s’ media guide. According to that same guide, this makes Robinson the shortest player in all of Division I college basketball for the 2016-17 season — the junior point guard edged out Fairfield’s Andrew Leone by an inch for that distinction.
Despite his diminutive stature, Robinson fills a big role for the Mountaineers. He is the second leading scorer for a team that now has 20 wins following Tuesday night’s victory and won both the NEC regular season and tournament championships. Robinson was honored as a Second Team All-NEC player and responded by averaging over 20 points per game in Mount St. Mary’s’ three NEC Tournament games. He also led the Mountaineers with 23 points and played all 40 minutes in Tuesday’s win over New Orleans.
Robinson knows how good he is. He knows how good his team can be when he and teammate Elijah Long are on their game. Looking ahead to the Mountaineers’ next task — taking down mighty Villanova — Robinson was confident.
“I feel like me and Eli are the best backcourt,” he said.
Robinson doesn’t just score, he is a key cog in the Mount Mayhem defensive scheme run by head coach Jamion Christian. The Mountaineers force a turnover on over 21 percent of their opponent’s possessions, good for 22nd in the country according to KenPom. Robinson ranks third on the team in steals.
That Mount St. Mary’s defense, along with First Team All-NEC performer Long, led the Mountaineers to 14 conference wins. In fact, the Mountaineers have now won 19 of their last 23 games. Long finished the year averaging 15.4 points per game and shot over 40 percent from three. In conjunction with Robinson, the Mountaineers have found a great deal of success, returning to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in their short Division I history.
However, it was not always smooth sailing for the Mountaineers this season. In fact, on Dec. 19, they had just one win. The 1-11 record was largely the result of an extremely difficult non-conference schedule littered with buy games against high-quality opponents. Seven of the losses came in road games against KenPom top 100 competition, while the one win was an overtime victory at George Mason. While Mount St. Mary’s certainly was not expected to win many of the games on their opening schedule, it is hard to imagine a 1-11 team in December not only making the NCAA Tournament, but winning a game.
Unless, that is, you are coach Christian. When asked if he expected to be in a postgame press conference following an NCAA Tournament win back in December, Christian said he did.
“I believed in these guys from day one,” he said. “We wouldn’t have put that schedule together unless I believed in their ability to recover.”
You can chalk that up to coach speak if you want, but Christian credits his players for their resiliency and cohesion through the tough times. He pointed to the Dec. 19 loss at Bucknell as the turning point of their season
“It forced us to have to understand what we need to do to beat good teams,” he said.
While a great deal of credit for the Mount St. Mary’s turnaround goes to Long and his scoring ability, don’t forget about the spark Robinson provides his team. Christian said before Monday’s practice that Robinson is an inspiration.
“He’s a special player because he’s got enormous heart,” he said. “Usually you say that about someone who isn’t as talented a player as he is. But he’s the type of guy that, every single day, he’ll be one of the hardest workers and just understands what he needs to do.”
Christian feels that much of the combined success Robinson and Long share is due to the energy they play with.
“[Robinson] was really the leader of that,” he said. “When Elijah came in, he worked to bring him along well. The two guys in the backcourt are really special.”
The Mount St. Mary’s backcourt will get a shot at one of the nation’s elites, Villanova, in Buffalo on Thursday. History says the Mountaineers probably won’t win, but that doesn’t shake their confidence.
“Records are meant to be broken,” Robinson said. “If the ball bounces our way, history will be broken.”