Blockin' Robbins

by Chad Bishop

Vanderbilt center Liam Robbins, chasing the program's single-season blocks record, nearing end of long collegiate journey

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At times, when his schedule allows, Liam Robbins will take long walks by himself.

These walks give him a moment to clear his mind, to pray and to reflect on how far he has come, where he is today and just how far he has to go.

“My uncle once told me that comparing is a fool’s errand,” Robbins said, introspectively, about his journey. “Not everyone sees success at the same time.”

Having played 31 games at Vanderbilt, Robbins is starting to find some consistent and major success with the Commodores. The senior leads Vandy (8-8, 1-2 SEC) into another crucial league matchup at 1 p.m. Saturday against visiting No. 15 Arkansas (12-3, 1-3 SEC). He is intent on nothing more than getting Vanderbilt back into March Madness.

The Dores will need everything Robbins has to return to that promised land.

Looking Up at Liam

It doesn’t take long to find that Robbins’ story has been detailed thoroughly for the past five or so years. Local newspapers, regional television, the Big Ten Network—they have all chronicled how Robbins went from a high schooler of average height to an overweight 7-footer to a college basketball standout.

Going into his junior year of high school, Robbins was about 6-foot-2, maybe inching toward 6-foot-3. Over the next 12 months, though, the Davenport, Iowa, native begin a sustained, gradual growth pattern: quarter-inch here, a half-inch there. It was exhausting. And Robbins was constantly hungry.

So he ate and ate and ate, but he was too tired to do much physical activity. By the time his senior season of basketball started at Assumption High School, he stood 7 feet tall—and weighed 300 pounds.

“I was just putting on weight and not even realizing it,” Robbins said. “When you’re 7-foot and weigh 300 pounds, that might look a little different than someone who might be 6-foot.”

Robbins was not a star at Assumption. He played enough to be an integral part of the team, but he was not by any means a high-level college basketball prospect.

Still, Robbins was contacted and recruited by programs at the Division II and Division III level.

“I actually felt very blessed to have D-II teams looking at me. I didn’t really play a lot in high school, so the fact that a D-II team wanted me to play—I was excited about that,” Robbins said. “At the same time, I was competing against D-I guys and was like, ‘You know, I’m not that far off. I just hit this growth spurt, and I’m still figuring out this body.’

“I didn’t love the prep school idea at first because I was going to graduate and all my friends were going to start college. But then if I went to junior college, your eligibility clock starts.”

At a crossroads in his basketball journey, Robbins rolled the dice and left home for the first time.

A Sunrise in Kansas

Robbins had long conversations with his uncle Duffy Conroy, also a veteran basketball coach, about his athletic future. In the end, the two decided, the best route was for Robbins to buy more time.

Conroy got in touch with Achoki Moikobu, the head coach at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas, and called in a favor. His nephew needed a place to play, to grow and to develop.

I was very blessed to have someone in my family to make that call,” Robbins said. “(Moikobu) called me and said, ‘This is going to be the hardest year of your life.’ But he said, ‘If you do what I ask you, you’ll be a better basketball player.’ And that really intrigued me.”

In the summer of 2017, Robbins left Iowa for Kansas. What would follow is what Robbins now refers to as “hell month.”

At 5 a.m. each day, Robbins and his teammates would walk to a nearby football field (half a mile away, Robbins estimates) and do conditioning. That workout was followed by Bible study and class, then an hour of skill work and an hour of weightlifting before a small break. From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., the team practiced.

Robbins, meanwhile, had also been put on an intermittent fasting plan to help him lose weight. The struggle was doubly tough on him.

When Robbins returned to Iowa in December on break, he had lost 60 pounds and was nearly unrecognizable to family and friends.

“It was tough, but I think that was one of my favorite times of my life,” Robbins said.

Destiny in Des Moines

Robbins argues that the Quad Cities region of Iowa and Illinois is brimming with basketball talent. It was there that Robbins learned and fell in love with the game.

Kyle LaMonte, a former Southern Mississippi guard and professional, organized pickup games for area prospects, college players and pros in the area—including Robbins. Thus, Robbins was competing against high-level basketball talent before he ever began his own collegiate career.

That gave Robbins the confidence to gamble on spending a year at Sunrise. It then allowed him to be fearless in a chance competition against former Drake star Nick McGlynn.

Still somewhat under the radar as a Division I recruit, Robbins originally committed to play basketball at Western Illinois. When new Drake assistant coach Matt Woodley phoned Robbins and asked if he’d be interested in an open tryout to play for the Bulldogs, however, Robbins began to reconsider.

Robbins showed up to the Des Moines, Iowa, school one spring day and admits he doesn’t really recall what happened next. He knows he worked out for nearly two hours and held his own against McGlynn.

“I had just decided to stay at Drake for my senior year,” McGlynn said. “Woodley brought Liam in, and I might have been there by coincidence? Or I was brought in for my regular workout and Liam just happened to pop in.”

Hours after the workout, Robbins was offered a full scholarship to play for Drake.

Robbins would play 65 games for the Bulldogs between 2018 and 2020. He averaged more than 14 points and seven rebounds to go along with 2.9 blocks per game while being named All-Missouri Valley Conference.

When the 2019–20 season ended, Robbins began to wonder if he would have as much success competing against better competition and if he could find a home inside his dream conference.

Robbins was born in Wisconsin and grew up rooting for the Wisconsin Badgers even after he moved to Iowa at the age of 6. His uncle, Duffy Conroy, spent two separate stints on the Badgers’ staff and was part of back-to-back Big Ten Conference regular-season titles.

But it was another Conroy, former Vanderbilt assistant coach Ed, who floated the idea of Robbins joining a Big Ten program. Ed Conroy was an assistant at Minnesota when Robbins decided to transfer there in 2020.

Robbins played 23 games for the Golden Gophers and averaged 11.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks before a foot injury in February 2021 ended his season and, ultimately, his Minnesota career.


Ed Conroy joined Vanderbilt’s staff in 2021, and Robbins soon followed.

Despite the injury, Robbins said, head coach Jerry Stackhouse and his assistants gave Robbins the peace of mind that no matter how long recovery and rehab took, they would support him 100 percent.

That road to recovery was almost over in the preseason, Robbins thought. But a setback boomeranged Robbins back to ground zero.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the now senior center.

“The silver lining for me was more outside of basketball. I consider myself a pretty smart guy, so I feel like I would have learned whether I was playing or wasn’t playing,” Robbins said. “But I had only identified myself as a basketball player. The injury made me realize I’m more than that. I’m a student, I’m a grad student at Vanderbilt, I’ve done this and that.

“And people also don’t really care if I play basketball. I had started heavily associating my identity as a basketball player. I realized that I have aspirations in life other than basketball. Life will move on past basketball. That kind of helped me prepare for when the time comes when I do have to walk away.”

Robbins finally made his debut Feb. 2, 2022, at Kentucky. It had been almost one full year since Robbins had last played in a competitive game.

“I’m really happy to see him develop into such a dominant big man,” McGlynn said. “It’s night and day, honestly. His tendencies haven’t really changed, but his efficiency has been through the roof. I knew he had a large frame, good touch around the rim, could shoot a little bit. But when you go against a freshman you know you can take away those tendencies.

“I watch him now, and I still think I could take him, but clearly he has made leaps and bounds in his game. I’m so happy for him and I’m so happy for his development and I’m so happy that he’s definitely got a bright future in basketball ahead of him.”



Blockin’ Robbins

“I think it helps that I’m tall,” Robbins grinned.

Robbins goes into Saturday’s game with 47 blocks this season. He needs three to enter the top 10 for most blocks in a single Vanderbilt season and needs 41 to pass Festus Ezeli’s all-time record of 87 set in the 2010–11 season.

Robbins, who wears a size 18 shoe, needs to average 2.5 blocks over the next 16 games to own the record.

“I don’t know if it’s an art, it’s just something I’ve always tried to do,” Robbins said. “I think a lot of it is a mindset. If you have that mindset you’re going to at least walk into a few blocks.

“I think it’s something I do better than most people, so I think that helps our team. It’s something of value that I provide on the floor. It adds an intimidation factor.”

Robbins already holds a program record for blocks. He swatted 99 shots at Drake in the 2019–20 season.

And in November, against Fresno State, Robbins blocked eight shots, two shy of Vandy’s single-game record held by Luke Kornet.

“The records and stuff like that don’t concern me,” Robbins said. “The only record that concerns me is the win-loss one. Obviously we have work to do.”

The Road Ahead

Robbins will turn 24 in July. In the weeks and months ahead, he will play his final games as a Commodore and a collegian.

“It goes without saying that my wife and I are just unbelievably proud of just how hard he has worked,” said Mark Robbins, Liam’s father. “He has persevered through a lot. Not just the (weight loss), but three different programs—I don’t think people understand what the student-athlete goes through. These kids go through a lot.

“Then at Vanderbilt with the academic standards that they have. They don’t get a lot of leeway that you would at other institutions. To keep their nose to the grindstone, get good grades … so we’re proud about the academic side and his athletic pursuits that he’s moving forward with.”

Robbins is averaging 13.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and almost three blocks per game. He scored 22 points in a victory over South Carolina on Jan. 3, pulled down 11 rebounds against Southeastern Louisiana on Dec. 30 and made a season-high nine field goals as the Dores defeated Temple on Nov. 15.

Now weighing 250 pounds, Robbins joked he also thinks he plays better when his brother, Declan Robbins, a student manager for the Lipscomb men’s basketball team, is in attendance at Memorial Gymnasium.

Liam and Declan are two of four Robbins children. Sister Erin is 15, and sister Isabel is 21.

Liam has a special bond with the latter. Isabel, or Izzie as the family calls her, has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes delayed development and problems with speech and balance, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“She’s the happiest person I ever met in my life,” Robbins said of his sister. “She’s just taught me so much because there’s a lot of things she can’t do—she can’t always communicate what she wants or what she needs, and she still always has a smile on her face.

“So whenever I’m going through something in my life, I’m always reminded to imagine what my sister has to go through. It always gives me an attitude of gratefulness. What I’m going through isn’t anything compared to what she goes through, and she still finds happiness. I’m very blessed to have her in my life.”

Robbins said he has thought about a career working with those with special needs whenever his basketball playing days are over. With an undergraduate degree in business marketing and education from Minnesota and currently working on a graduate degree from Vanderbilt in human development studies, Robbins is also pondering a career in the business and sports realm where he can assist athletes in their financial growth.

But for now, when he’s not playing video games or taking long walks or watching reruns of Seinfeld, Robbins is focused on helping the Commodores get over that proverbial hump and on leading them to a championship.

“I just want to go out a winner,” Robbins said of his Vandy finish. “Whatever happens, I want to say that I helped, whether it’s cheering on the bench or making a shot or the game-winning basket, I just want to say that I helped us achieve our highest potential.

“I don’t know what that is, but I just hope we can win so I can say I helped Vanderbilt win and can watch them succeed long after I’m done playing here.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.


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