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Entering the season, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s backcourt had a lone constant after the departure of multiple key rotational pieces: Eli Brooks. And with four guards either joining the program or being forced to step into a larger role this year, much of the scoring burden from those departures had been placed on the fifth-year guard to start the year.

Through the first stretch of the season, Brooks filled that role adequately. He was the clear second option for the Wolverines, behind sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, and averaged 15 points while shooting just under 50% from the floor through the first seven games.

But as of late, Brooks has gone cold. With no other significant scoring threat in the backcourt, opposing teams have been able to key on him, and he’s struggled as a result. Over Michigan’s past four games, Brooks has shot just over 30% from the field.

As opponents have placed more focus on Brooks, though, the Wolverines’ other guards have begun to shine. That starts with graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones, who has strung together his best three games of the season by limiting his mistakes. Additionally, freshmen guards Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin as well as sophomore guard Zeb Jackson have begun to step up and earn more minutes.

“(Bufkin, Jackson and) Frankie are some of the most athletic guys I’ve seen,” Dickinson said on Monday. “And so for us, using that athleticism, offensively and defensively is something that we would definitely like to happen. I think (Michigan coach Juwan Howard) … him and the rest of the coaching staff are trying to get them to buy into guarding.”

That right there is the key. While all three came in as highly-ranked recruits and have shown flashes of their offensive talent in the past, the amount of time they’ve seen on the floor — or lack thereof — boils down to their defense. Not that early defensive struggles are uncommon for younger players; the college game requires a higher level of defensive play than what players have seen before. But nonetheless, it has been the key factor holding them off the court.

Collins proved to be a strong defender early on, and in doing so, earned minutes as the first guard off the bench. Jackson and Bufkin, on the other hand, have taken a little longer.

Jackson missed the Wolverines’ first six games with an illness and as a result, lacked the conditioning to play extended minutes. And even since he has been back, his minutes have fluctuated drastically, going from 15 minutes in a strong offensive showing against Nebraska to not even seeing the floor in Michigan’s next game against Minnesota. Against the Golden Gophers, the Wolverines’ one-on-one defensive struggles were their downfall, and it’s fair to conclude Howard was looking for more of a defensive contribution than Jackson could give them.

For Bufkin, it’s been a similar story. After scoring eight points in 17 minutes against Prairie View A&M in Michigan’s second game of the season, Bufkin’s minutes waned. He often only saw game action in blowouts, and occasionally didn’t play at all.

Saturday against Southern Utah, Bufkin and Jackson each registered their best performance of the season. The duo combined for 19 points at a combined 7-for-13 clip while both playing double-digit minutes. And most importantly, in a game in which the Wolverines’ defense got back on track, neither proved to be a liability on that end of the floor.

“(Defense) is always going to be a big reason why any player gets on the floor,” Bufkin said after the game. “Gotta be able to play defense. So that’s been a big focus of mine.”

With Brooks now attracting more attention than he had in the past, Michigan needs more scoring from other sources in the backcourt. Bufkin, Jackson and Collins all have the potential to contribute in that role, as long as their defense allows them to stay on the court.

“Especially with (Kobe and Zeb), their ability to make shots and really be athletic and create defensive matchups is more of the thing that we’ll be looking at,” assistant coach Howard Eisley said. “Guys that (are) fast, athletic, you put them on the floor (and) can cause havoc on a defense.”