Conference USA Basketball

Mitchell Robinson’s departure drastically changes Western Kentucky’s outlook

Mitchell Robinson, a Consensus Top 10 recruit in the class of 2017, announced on Sunday that he would withdraw from Western Kentucky University and focus on preparation for the 2018 NBA Draft. Robinson’s decision brings an end to one of the most bizarre recruiting sagas in recent years. 

Robinson initially committed to play for Texas A&M in 2015. He backed out following the 2015-16 season, shortly after assistant coach Rick Stansbury left to become the head coach at Western Kentucky. Initial buzz suggested Robinson would wind up at another power conference program, but he opted to follow Stansbury to WKU in June of 2016. The decision Stansbury made in adding Robinson’s mentor Shammond Williams to the Hilltoppers’ coaching staff likely didn’t hurt his recruiting pitch.

The Hilltoppers seemingly made their recruiting coup official when the 222 pound 7-footer signed his letter of intent during the early signing period in 2017, but the story was far from over. Shammond Williams resigned from his coaching position in July, and Robinson was released from his Letter of Intent less than a month later. 

Uncertainty about his 2017-18 eligibility after he started classes at Western Kentucky took most potential suitors out of the running for her services. Robinson visited perennial powerhouse Kansas and local programs LSU and the University of New Orleans, a member of the Southland Conference, before reaffirming his commitment to WKU

During this stretch Western Kentucky fans got another bit of great news when leading scorer and rebounder Justin Johnson announced he would return to the Hilltopper basketball team after flirting with the idea of playing football for the fall semester of his senior year. Johnson averaged 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds as a junior. Putting him next to a strong one-and-done candidate center would’ve given the Hilltoppers a front court that mid-majors can’t dream of.

There’s no doubt that Robinson, who currently projects as late first round pick on NBADraft.net in the wake of his departure from WKU, would’ve been a serious game changer for the Hilltoppers. His NBA size and athleticism combined with his skills on defense and in transition would’ve made him a nightmare matchup in a conference where tweener forwards dominate the post. 

The timing of Robinson’s arrival at Western Kentucky would’ve been beneficial to the Hilltoppers’ chances at a potential Conference USA title despite the fact that he’s joining a roster that finished 7th in the C-USA in 2017. Middle Tennessee State, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of its last two seasons, lost 2017 C-USA Player of the Year JaCorey Williams and Second Team All-Conference USA performer Reggie Upshaw to graduation. 2017 C-USA runner up Louisiana Tech lost its star forward Eric McCree to the Miami Heat. 

While Western Kentucky suffered significant losses to graduation, there was still optimism for a big jump in the conference standings. The combination of Robinson and proven double-double machine Johnson would have allowed the team to absolutely overwhelm many conference opponents in the post by preventing overmatched opposition from consistently double teaming either player. It wouldn’t have taken much for Stansbury to build around that front court and put together a roster that would finish near the top of the C-USA. From there, a conference tournament upset or two isn’t out of the question and Western Kentucky could’ve been a strong candidate to find its way to the NCAA Tournament. 

Now it seems that those hopes are all but out the window. Johnson’s stats will likely see a significant jump as much of last year’s supporting cast graduated, but what will be good for his individual numbers won’t be so good for the team’s win total. The Hilltoppers will likely finish somewhere in the muddled middle of Conference USA, and you should’t expect a return to the NCAA Tournament unless Stansbury can channel his inner Ray Harper.

Email John and john [dot] parker [at] campusspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @jjparker084.

Photo by: Western Kentucky Hilltopper Athletics

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