In less than a year and a half, Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks have experienced as much some players do in their entire college career.
Last January, Livers played his way into Michigan’s starting lineup after scoring double-figure points in three straight games. Despite holding down the spot at power forward throughout the Wolverines’ unexpected Big Ten Tournament title and run to the National Championship game, the 6-foot-7 Kalamazoo native didn’t score in double digits again, and was never really the same after suffering an ankle injury in February.
Brooks’ freshman year was even more turbulent. In just his fifth game, the 6-foot-2 guard from Spring Grove, Pa. was Michigan’s starting point guard after Zavier Simpson was benched overnight in Maui. Two months later, he was out of the rotation entirely.
But now — after experiencing rapid early successes and subsequent, just-as-rapid changes in fortune; after coming so close, but yet so far away, to the ultimate prize — the pair of sophomores are in just about the same position again.
Tasked with manning the ‘3’, ‘4’ and ‘5’ positions at various times in John Beilein’s complex system, Livers has averaged 7.2 points while shooting 46.8 percent from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Brooks has spelled both Simpson and Jordan Poole in the backcourt, scoring 4.4 points per game with an assist/turnover ratio of 2.3 to 1.
With the Wolverines possessing one of the most dominant starting lineups in the nation, Livers and Brooks’ versatility and efficiency off the bench, while crucial, has often flown under the radar.
On Saturday against Air Force, that couldn’t have been farther from the case.
Michigan coach John Beilein hinted on Thursday that Livers would be crucial against the Falcons, whose tallest regular player is 6-foot-7. Livers’ floor-spacing ability and athleticism in the middle would allow the Wolverines to best match up with Air Force and counter its normal gameplan.
This turned out to be true, in theory and in practice. In 22 minutes, Livers scored 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting and 3-for-6 from distance, and also chipped in with six rebounds and two steals. Three of those rebounds came on the offensive end, as his energy and hustle on long rebounds kept a number of possessions alive. His ability to grab loose balls and bring the ball up in transition led to scoring opportunities as well.
With Livers on the court, the Wolverines outscored the Falcons by 22 points. They trailed by one otherwise.
“Him playing the five-man was very helpful for us,” Beilein said. “We could switch every screen when he was in there and then he could pop their big man and hit the threes. He’s a Swiss Army knife for us and we’ve gotta keep him just focused on this different role.”
In his postgame presser, Beilein stated that Brooks worked his way into Michigan’s rotation last year because the offense flowed better with him in the game. But it was Brooks’ play on the other side of the ball to which his coach delivered the most praise on Saturday.
Air Force, according to Beilein, “probably ran 150 backdoor cuts.” Brooks, who “really understands defense off the ball,” played a critical role in neutralizing them.
“He is the one directing a lot of people,” Beilein said. “He’s always in the right position and that’s why you can put him in there and just play. … You guard that thing for 28 seconds, like I said, you’re guarding cutters, you’re guarding cutters over and over, it can tire you out.”
And of course, there was Brooks’ offense. His stat line of six points and four assists in 26 minutes may seem modest, but it was his fast-break layup that sparked an 11-0 run that gave the Wolverines control of the game after a slow start. Working inside later in the first half, he nailed a tough shot just outside of the lane to preserve Michigan’s double-digit lead. For the game, Brooks’ plus-minus rating was 15.
“Eli gave us a great spark,” Beilein said. “ … He can shoot better than he did today, but to just put him in there and play was good because you can give Zavier a rest the whole second half.”
Brooks and Livers aren’t the first two players one would credit for the Wolverines’ 12-0 start. They’re the two lowest-usage players in Michigan’s normal seven-man rotation. They both fit the definition of “role player” to a T.
When one speaks of “role players,” there’s sometimes a perjorative attached; an implication that a player’s skill is limited or their role is easy to fill. But after tumultous seasons adjusting to the college game, both Brooks and Livers appear to have found their ideal roles.
And against Air Force, their contributions in their roles were as clearly essential as they’ve been all season.
“Both those guys (Eli and Isaiah), I told both of them right before the game, you two guys right now are sacrificing a lot for the team, but right now, you’re really valuable,” Beilein said. “You’re winning games for us.”