INDIANAPOLIS — Eli Brooks has been here before:
Staring face-to-face with a game that could be the last in his college career, knowing that not coming away with a win would mean the end of his time with the Michigan men’s basketball team.
The fifth-year guard knows the feeling all too well.
And he knows how it feels when that shoe finally drops. It’s a driving force behind why Brooks is still with the team.
“The whole year, I told everybody on my team I wasn’t gonna come back,” Brooks said at Big Ten Media Day before the start of the season. “But after we suffered the loss (to UCLA), I sat down and talked to my parents. Just thought like, ‘Why not come back for one more year?’ ”
Against No. 3 seed Tennessee on Saturday, Brooks looked like someone who wasn’t ready for that final moment to be realized. A fire burnt in his eyes as he infused the Wolverines’ offense, willing them to a 76-68 victory over the Volunteers.
When Michigan needed a player to step up, Brooks got it done. The captain and foremost leader on the team did exactly that — lead.
It’s what he came back to do, and it’s what he does best.
“I always said Zavier Simpson was one of the best leaders to ever put on a Michigan uniform, but I also have to give that, 1A, 1B, to Eli Brooks,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s everything when it comes to being a Michigan man, what he’s done on the floor, what he’s done off the floor.
“We’ve been together for three years, and this young man earned the right to be a captain at the University of Michigan because (of) the way I’ve seen him and his growth. It’s going to be tough to replace a guy like that. He’s irreplaceable”
Off the floor, it’s evident that Brooks captains the Wolverines’ ship, but his on-court production hasn’t always stood out. He’s a consistently good defender — one that not only knows his assignment on the court, but his teammates’ — with a respectable jumpshot and playmaking game. There hasn’t been a moment, though, where Brooks has emerged as a lethal offensive weapon this season.
Until Saturday night.
With 53 seconds remaining, Michigan holding just a two point lead, Brooks drove the lane. A well-executed Tennessee defense ushered Brooks low and away from the rim, forcing a near-impossible shot. Brooks threw up a prayer.
Moments later, it was answered.
The hook shot fell, giving the Wolverines the cushion they needed to close out the game and move on to the Sweet Sixteen, once more delaying Brooks’s final moments donning the maize and blue.
But it wasn’t just that; Brooks secured a season-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including a pair of decisive 3-pointers and a plethora of bail-out buckets when Michigan needed them most.
“He’s kind of been looking forward to this and made for this,” James Brooks, Eli’s father and former coach, told The Daily. “I think he showed that he’s more than just a complementary player, that he’s that second-level, second-tier scorer, and he just didn’t want his career to end.”
It was a performance driven by experience, grit and a will to avoid the inevitable.
“(Playing my last game at Michigan is) definitely in the back of my mind,” Eli said. “But I’m just trying to live in the moment right now and cherish the time that we have with the people that are in my life right now at Michigan and just enjoy the process of going through this tournament again and having that chance of getting our last goal.”
That goal, of course, is a national championship. It’s something Eli has come close to but never quite achieved. Every tournament since Eli has arrived at Michigan, the Wolverines have made it to a Sweet Sixteen, reaching the Elite Eight just a season ago and falling in the title game as a freshman.
It’s the carrot on the end of the stick that Eli has chased for five long years.
And in his final chance to reach it, Eli’s push to secure a win over the Volunteers puts him one step closer.