The story of how Michigan’s Final Four roster was assembled is anything but conventional. Loyola-Chicago is an intriguing Cinderella, and Kansas and Villanova surely have some unexpected contributors. But only one team in San Antonio has key players discovered everywhere from Division III to email spam folders.
Duncan Robinson, a part-time starter who won the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award this season, started his career at Division III Williams College, a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts with 2,000 undergrads.
The 6-foot-8 Robinson led the Ephs — it rhymes with Chiefs and is a shortened version of the first name of the school’s founder, Ephraim Williams — to the 2014 national championship his freshman season, the same year Michigan went to the Elite Eight.
After the season, both programs underwent major changes. Williams’ head coach, Mike Maker, took a new job. Michigan lost three sophomores somewhat unexpectedly to the NBA, plus a transfer and a graduating senior. Spots were open, and Maker — who had been an assistant under John Beilein at West Virginia — called Beilein to suggest he consider Robinson.
Robinson is believed to be the first basketball player to transfer from Division III to Division I and receive a scholarship. He has started 49 games at Michigan and ranks fourth in program history in 3-pointers made.
Fellow senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman knows there are talented players at the lower-levels of college basketball — his dad was a Division III coach at one point. “There are some players that fall through the cracks for whatever reason,” he said.
And yet he often talks with Robinson about his improbable journey to a Big Ten school. Abdur-Rahkman can relate, given that he was a two-star recruit from Allentown, Pennsylvania, ranked outside the top-400.
A phone call from a local basketball junkie tipped off Beilein that Abdur-Rahkman was perhaps being overlooked. For the same reason Beilein was willing to bring in a transfer, he took a shot on an unheralded prospect: “All of a sudden we were looking for warm bodies,” Beilein said in February.
Abdur-Rahkman, of course, has been much more than that for the Wolverines. In Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Loyola-Chicago, Abdur-Rahkman will become the program’s all-time leader in games played.
The guard is joined in the starting lineup by Moritz Wagner, a Berlin native who wasn’t even set on playing college basketball a few years ago. A former Beilein player, Johannes Herber, had played for the same junior national team as Wagner. Herber emailed Beilein video of Wagner, but the coach didn’t see it among his many messages until a few weeks later, at which point he emailed Wagner.
That email ended up in Wagner’s spam folder and went unread for weeks. “I felt bad,” Wagner said. “Two weeks later I discovered it, and I was shocked. He had texted twice. I thought, ‘I’d better answer this guy.'”
Beilein eventually visited Wagner in Berlin — “I asked for a big German dinner and a beer. I got both of them,” he said — and was struck by Wagner’s personality, even on a short elevator ride in his apartment. “I said, ‘If this kid’s good at all, I’m going to give him a scholarship, because he was so engaging.'”
Wagner got that scholarship and, as a junior, is Michigan’s leading scorer and rebounder this season.
On this team, the fact that Charles Matthews transferred from abasketball powerhouse Kentucky or Zavier Simpson arrived only after other point guards spurned Michigan at the final hour barely register on the radar.
“It’s crazy we all came to this team on different paths,” Abdur-Rahkman said Thursday. “We mesh well together.”