Some things just come down to fate.
No matter what happened beforehand, or what happens after, there are things that are just intertwined, inevitable.
Eli Brooks and Villanova are one of those things.
The Michigan fifth-year guard grew up, fell in love with basketball and made a name for himself in the state of Pennsylvania. The state is also the home of the Wildcats, just a two-and-a-half hour drive from Brooks’s hometown of Spring Grove.
Only a three star recruit, Brooks wasn’t on many schools’ radars. He collected offers mostly from the likes of American, Brown, Colgate and Delaware. But there were two teams that stood out from the list: Michigan and Villanova.
He was just their type of guy.
“I think both teams have a similar mission of getting really good student athletes that know how to play the game the right way, (go about) their academic life the right way,” former Michigan coach John Beilein told The Daily. “And as a result, they have a culture that has done nothing but win.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright agrees.
“Great, great kid. Great family,” Wright said Wednesday. “This is kind of what we thought he’d be. We thought he’d be a four-year guy and a great player and winner, champion by the time he was done. He’s got such great character, great basketball IQ, brilliant student and a great competitor.”
When it came down to making the decision, only Brooks and his family knew what was going to happen.
There was just one 247Sports Crystal Ball prediction for where Brooks would end up; it was to Villanova. As Wright recalls it, he had no inkling of which way Brooks would go before he called to inform him that he would be attending Michigan. Beilein had no clue which school he would choose — so much so that he was surprised when Brooks let him know he would be coming to Ann Arbor.
“When I offered him a scholarship before Villanova offered him, I said ‘I understand if Villanova offers you, I understand why you would go there. I get it. But I just want to let you know, if it doesn’t work out, we’re still here,’ ” Beilein said. “So then I heard Villanova offered him a scholarship, and I said, ‘Oh, OK, so you’re going to go to Villanova.’ and he said ‘No, I’m gonna go to Michigan.’
“He surprised me. That reestablished why we were recruiting him. He understood Michigan and he understood what we were all about.”
According to Eli’s father, James Brooks, it was everything else Michigan and Ann Arbor had to offer that gave the Wolverines the edge in Eli’s decision. Obviously, the basketball program mattered, but Eli was getting “good basketball” no matter where he committed.
That became clear by the end of his freshman season.
April 2, 2018. Michigan was set to take on Villanova in San Antonio in the National Championship Game. Everything was on the line. No matter what, the two teams were going home — either with a trophy or a bad taste in their mouth.
Eli was just a freshman — a rotational piece for the Wolverines over the course of the season, but not a main guy yet. Taking the court opposite him was the same coach that recruited him, and all the could-have-been teammates, now opponents.
It’s unlikely that any of that was at the forefront of his mind.
“When you play in a championship game, I don’t think you say ‘Man, I want to beat Villanova,’ ” Beilein said. “You try to win a National Championship.”
The Wolverines, though, left San Antonio empty-handed. The Wildcats outmatched them, taking them down, 79-62. It was a harrowing defeat. Not because it was Villanova, but because Michigan came so close to the top, and fell just inches short of the ultimate goal.
“So we were in the National Championship no matter which way he decided,” James told The Daily. “It was a good position to be in, just happened to be on the short end of that side.”
And while he had the short end in the championship, it wasn’t the only time Michigan and Eli would see the Wildcats in 2018.
At the start of Eli’s sophomore season, Michigan battled Villanova in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. The Wolverines came away on top, decimating the Wildcats in a 73-46 win. But it was no consolation for losing a National Championship.
Neither team has reached the championship game or the Final Four in the four years since. But Eli is still with Michigan, no longer a bench player but the foremost leader on the team and starting shooting guard. Now, Eli doesn’t just encapsulate the type of player both Villanova and Michigan were searching for — he is that player.
“I did see him getting this good, and this is what we thought he would be. That’s why we recruited him,” Wright said. “… I think Eli Brooks is one of the best guards in the country. He’s a winner.”
And on Thursday, Eli and Villanova will meet once again, this time in the Sweet Sixteen. It’s not the National Championship Game, but the stakes remain high. Either the Wolverines or the Wildcats will be forced to return home after the bout, and the other will continue their quest for a title.
“I mean, this was the two schools that it came down to for me, so this is a big matchup for me; to get the win back in the same place that we lost the National Championship Game in,” Eli said Wednesday. “But I’m not going to make it personal about myself. It’s about moving on to the next round.
“It just happens to be Villanova back in San Antonio.”
It’s funny how things happen that way: Eli playing against the team that he almost chose — the one that knocked him out of the National Title Game his freshman year — in the same city as that title game, in what could be his final game as a Wolverine if they lose.
It just seems like fate.