A few weeks back, as Juwan Howard fielded questions from the media following a loss at Iowa, he wanted to make one thing clear — Eli Brooks was not in a slump.
“He’s been working extremely hard throughout the season,” Howard said. “At times, I know he’s been getting a lot of media attention and a lot of negative press. Unfortunately, at times some of it has been disrespectful I would say and it’s been unfair.”
The junior guard had been a consistent scorer for the Wolverines through the first two months of the season, but scored just 15 points on 7-of-23 shooting over three games to begin January.
But whatever plagued Brooks against Michigan State, Purdue and Minnesota from an offensive perspective was turned on its head against the Hawkeyes, as Brooks exploded for a career-high 25 points and shot 5-for-11 from deep.
But, as much as Howard commended Brooks for his offensive production that night, he made even more of a point of lauding Brooks’ defense.
“The beauty of it, which doesn’t show up on the box score, is Eli’s been one of our best defenders,” Howard said. “Usually if you have a guy who doesn’t make shots, they forget about playing defense on the other end because they get so frustrated because the shots not going in.
“Eli’s been the competitor that we’ve asked him to be. He’s shown he’s dependable. So, I’m very happy with Eli. He’s one of our leaders.”
Howard’s endorsement that night in Iowa City has rung true in the 22 days since, but was no more evident than when Michigan faced the Spartans on Saturday at Crisler Center.
In the teams’ previous meeting in early January, Michigan State’s All-American point guard Cassius Winston dominated the Wolverines with 32 points and nine assists en route to an 18-point thrashing of Michigan.
Saturday, though, things were different for both Winston and the Spartans. Brooks was a major reason why. Michigan coach Juwan Howard switched the defensive assignments ahead of Saturday’s rematch, handing the task of guarding Winston to Brooks — arguably the Wolverines’ best perimeter defender — instead of senior guard Zavier Simpson.
“Honestly, I think (Zavier) did a great job of handling it because that’s the little matchup battle,” Livers said. “But Cassius guards Eli, so it was like, ‘Eli, why don’t you turn around and guard Cassius?’ Make it simple. And Eli, man, he’s a pest. He’s a really good defender.”
In addition to 11 points and nine boards of his own, Brooks held Winston to just 20 points on 18 shots. In stymying Michigan State’s maestro, the Wolverines disrupted the Spartans’ offense as a whole — holding them to an offensive rating of 94.4, down from 114.5 in their previous matchup, per KenPom.
“I know in the last game Cassius was very comfortable,” Howard said. “I went back and watched film of our last game. I just wanted to give him a different look. I knew Eli — defensively, he’s a very disciplined player, very technical. He’s not gonna make many mistakes.
“I thought he did a really good job staying front of Cassius, making every catch tough for him, as well as challenging every shot without fouling.”
Like Howard, Brooks’ teammates weren’t surprised by his play against Winston, noting how he prides himself on the little things defensively.
“A lot of people overlook Eli,” Livers said. “I honestly hate when he guards me in practice. You can’t come off any ball screens, you can’t drive. He doesn’t give up any angles. He told me his dad taught him that at a young age, so that’s why he’s so excellent at it now.”
While Brooks is undoubtedly a capable scorer, his offensive numbers have ebbed and flowed at times this season. What hasn’t fluctuated is his effort defensively.
With Livers, Michigan’s leading scorer, back from injury, Simpson scoring double-digits in seven of his last nine games and the emergence of sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr., Brooks doesn’t need to be a go-to guy offensively. But on defense, performances like Saturday’s are always welcomed.