The year hasn’t gone according to plan for Eli Brooks.
The fifth-year guard exercised his extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 to run it back for one more season with the Michigan men’s basketball team and came into the year expecting to be the leader of a team with Final Four aspirations.
Yet, it’s been anything but for the Wolverines. Brooks has had to do a little bit of everything for a struggling Michigan squad just to keep its tournament bubble from bursting.
“He guards the other team’s best player and knows where all five of our guys are to be on every offensive set,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said on Jan. 17. “He knows the defensive game plan better than the coach that prepared the defensive game plan and makes threes. I would say like February third he’ll be running on his knees like everything will be gone. We are really, really, really appreciative of his efforts.”
As the calendar turned to February, Brooks still had his legs, but Michigan’s performance in Big Ten play was hardly more than a feeble kick. The Wolverines found themselves with a subpar record in the Big Ten and have had to pull out wins against lesser competition just to stay alive.
The month began with a closer than expected victory against Nebraska, with Brooks chipping in 20 points along the way.
Michigan’s latest Houdini act came in a slugfest against Penn State, where Brooks needed to leave it all on the court for the Wolverines to get the win. Brooks played 37 minutes, scoring 15 points and grabbing five rebounds. It was a gritty performance, and Brooks contributed six of Michigan’s final eight points to ensure it kept its season alive.
“The guy is selfless in so many ways,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s smart. He’s a competitor and his teammates can trust him. He’s one of the best leaders that I’ve been around, and I’ve been around sports for a very long time.”
It hasn’t always been pretty. But those wins aren’t possible without Brooks being on the court — or his leadership off it. Brooks came back to be a veteran leader for a Wolverines team that is full of young players. Even when Brooks hasn’t had the biggest offensive involvement, he’s still being a coach on the floor and imploring his team to find ways to win.
“Stepping into my spots, choosing the spots where I talk is big,” Brooks said. “They need to hear my voice and respect my voice every time. So (I’m) just continuing to stay on them and encourage the young guys and keep their heads.”
Despite everything that has gone wrong, time hasn’t run out on Michigan just yet. There are still opportunities for the Wolverines to pick up some much-needed quad one victories against ranked Big Ten opponents, starting with No. 3 Purdue and No. 16 Ohio State coming to town this weekend.
Brooks’ impact may not always be felt on the stat sheet, but his competitive spirit gives Michigan a belief it can still salvage its season.
“He brings it every time, all the time,” Howard said. “This kid, whenever he leaves Michigan, he has a chance to play at the next level… because a coach is going to see all the intangibles he brings when it comes to winning basketball.”
Back at Big Ten Media Day in October, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson knew that there was extra pressure on Brooks to lead.
“Last season, we had a ton of experience with a ton of leaders,” Dickinson said. “This season I think it’s pretty obvious who our leader is and who we look to for guidance and help if we need anything.”
As Michigan enters its most critical stretch, it will look to its senior leader now more than ever.