When Juwan Howard was asked about Eli Brooks’s nose on Wednesday, he leaned back in his podium chair and laughed.
During the Michigan men’s basketball team’s win over Purdue last Saturday, the junior guard found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time during a Boilermaker baseline inbounds pass. As he trailed his defensive assignment, the shoulder of a Purdue screener caught him square in the face. The collison fractured his nose.
For a while, Howard’s laughter didn’t stop. If there’s anyone familiar enough with the injury to chuckle, it’s the Wolverines’ first-year coach, who broke his nose three times during his 19-year NBA career.
But when Howard took a seat at the same podium a mere 30 hours later, there was no laughter. As Brooks watched from the bench in street clothes, his nose swallowed by a bandage, Michigan’s perimeter defense — his personal calling card — proved to be its pitfall in an 81-74 loss to Wisconsin.
“(Brooks) is our anchor,” Howard said. “Yes, (senior point guard) Zavier (Simpson) is a John Wooden finalist for one of the (top-10) best defensive players this year, but I’m surprised Eli is not mentioned as one of the best defensive players this season because he has been the anchor of our defense. Just his presence — we saw how we missed his activity, we missed his energy, being able to guard guys and attention to detail when it comes to the scouting report.”
The defeat snapped the Wolverines’ five-game winning streak — a season-altering stretch defined by a defensive turnaround. Over the three weeks leading up to Thursday, Michigan’s defense allowed opponents to score an average of just 60.4 points on 37 percent shooting.
For nearly a month, Brooks had been at the forefront of that revival.
Without Brooks, the Wolverines repeatedly surrendered uncontested looks, opening the door for the Badgers to cruise to 81 points on a 54-percent shooting clip. It was the highest field goal percentage Michigan has allowed at home this season.
“Eli is the best defender on our team,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said. “He brings it every night. So we missed him, definitely. … We didn’t communicate well enough and our energy, especially in the first half, it was horrible.”
The impact of Brooks’s absence was apparent from the start. Wisconsin canned its first three attempts from beyond the arc, opening up a double-digit lead just five minutes into the game.
The Badgers, who entered the night with the conference’s second-best 3-point clip, eventually used their success from beyond the arc to create pump-fake opportunities and driving lanes. The approach kept Michigan on its heels for much of the first half, and by the final buzzer, Wisconsin guard D’Mitrik Trice’s 28 points were enough to leave Crisler Center with a win.
Without Brooks, the Wolverines allowed Trice to enjoy a 10-for-16 shooting mark. Simpson, Wagner and sophomore guard David DeJulius all tried their hands at stopping him on the perimeter, only to see him post a 5-of-6 performance from deep that impacted more than just Michigan’s defense.
“We didn’t get an opportunity to play pace-and-space,” DeJulius said. “The gameplan (was) to run them off the 3-point line. We understand the great assets they have from beyond the line.”
When the Wolverines did find ways to put a hand in Trice’s face, they were plagued by miscommunications that left other Wisconsin shooters open behind the 3-point line. They ultimately surrendered a season-worst 11 3-pointers.
To DeJulius, the root of the problem cut deeper than the surface.
“It’s not really about X’s and O’s,” he said. “It’s about effort and what’s inside your heart.”