The floater went in, but the result of the play couldn’t have been worse for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Just four-and-a-half minutes into the Wolverines’ 70-64 loss to Michigan State on Sunday, after scoring his second basket of the game, senior guard Eli Brooks injured his left ankle after landing awkwardly on the foot of Spartan forward Marcus Bingham Jr.
Assisted by Michigan coach Juwan Howard and athletic trainer Alex Wong, Brooks hobbled to the bench and eventually into the locker room, emerging in a walking boot at the start of the second half.
“I don’t have much information for you about Eli’s injury,” Howard said afterward. “(We’ll) get home, gonna take a look and see after we’ve had our doctors take a look at it.”
Added senior wing Isaiah Livers: “You know he’s a warrior. … I didn’t get to see the replay but had to be bad if Eli can’t get back out there.”
As was the case in its first loss of the season against Minnesota on Jan. 16 — which Brooks missed due to injury — the Wolverines looked a shell of their typical selves without him. Michigan’s offense was disjointed, its defense erratic and its depth stretched.
In their loss to the Golden Gophers, Michigan shot just 39% from the field. This time, it was only slightly higher at 41.7%. While graduate point guard Mike Smith is the team’s primary ball-handler, Brooks initiates the offense in his relief. Brooks entered the game averaging only 2.8 assists, but his steady presence has proven invaluable for the Wolverines this season.
Brooks, who shoots over 36% from deep, also usually gives Michigan another scoring threat on the perimeter.
“First we could do better by making better decisions,” Howard said. “Also there was some questionable shot selection. I loved (their) aggressiveness, but we have to be smart-aggressive. And then there were times too where we were missing guys when they were open. We can’t have those moments either.”
Senior guard Chaundee Brown stepped in for Brooks. Typically the first player off the bench for the Wolverines, Brown filled in well from a scoring perspective, going 5-for-10 from the field with 13 points. Unfortunately for Michigan, though, its depth behind Brown was stretched extremely thin. Freshman Zeb Jackson had played just five total minutes in the last three games but played eight against the Spartans.
“No matter what, you can never prepare when you lose one of your main guys,” Howard said. “Chaundee did a good job of stepping in, Zeb had some good minutes out there as well, but we just pray that (Eli) gets back healthy.”
The void left by Brooks was especially pronounced on the defensive side of the ball. Michigan State’s guards Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry Jr. combined for 39 points. Brooks, the Wolverines’ best perimeter defender, would’ve matched up with one of them.
Michigan showed signs of life late in the game, cutting the deficit to two with a minute left. But, the Wolverines’ offensive strides were ultimately canceled out by their inability to get stops down the stretch — exactly when you’d want a guy like Eli Brooks on the floor.
“We gotta do a better job of defending. We always pride ourselves on defense being a staple of getting stops, but unfortunately today, we didn’t do a good job of getting stops when we needed it. I loved (their) effort but we gotta do a better job of being more locked into the details.”
While the severity of Brooks’s injury is unknown, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Michigan plays its first game in the Big Ten Tournament this Friday, before the NCAA Tournament starts the following week. How quickly Brooks can return to action may end up being the difference between a second-round exit and a run to the Final Four.
“When a guy that important goes down, you gotta adjust,” Livers said. “It’s a next man-up mentality, not making no excuses. We’re gonna watch film, see where we can improve at.”
As Michigan’s learned without Brooks, believing in a “next man-up mentality” and actually living up to it are two very different things.
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