During the first half of Monday’s Round of 32 clash, LSU had No. 1 seed Michigan on the ropes multiple times. But each time the 8th-seeded Tigers began to pull away, the Wolverines had an answer.
More often than not, it was senior guard Eli Brooks.
With Michigan trailing by eight after six minutes, a Brooks 3-pointer brought it back to a two-possession game. Less than four minutes later, he traded jumpers not once, but twice with Tigers’ star guard Javonte Smart, keeping the Wolverines within striking distance. And when Michigan went on a run just before the end of the half, it was Brooks who jump-started the 7-0 spurt with a layup.
Brooks finished with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting and tied a career-high with five 3-pointers. He was at the forefront of Michigan’s 86-78 win, sending the Wolverines to their fourth consecutive Sweet 16.
For much of this season, Brooks has been lost in the shuffle. Isaiah Livers is the senior leader, Hunter Dickinson is the dominant freshman, Franz Wagner is the potential lottery pick and Mike Smith is the impact transfer everyone wants to talk about.
Nicknamed “The Professor” for his impeccable fundamentals and attention to detail, Brooks has flown under the radar for the most part. But to those around the program, his value is immeasurable.
“He’s the most valuable player on this team, plain and simple,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said earlier this month on the Inside Michigan Basketball radio show. “… The most invaluable piece, both to his teammates and to also the coaching staff, is Eli Brooks. Earlier in the year, we talked about what this team was about, and it’s about balance. That’s what Eli brings. He’s a tremendous defender. He is a big basket maker. … His IQ and willingness to share his knowledge, not just with his teammates but his coaches, during practice. He’s the most valuable player on this team.”
Brooks has long been regarded as one of the conference’s best perimeter defenders. He often draws the matchup of the other team’s top guard, and his ability to win his one-on-one matchup is one of the main reasons Michigan ranks No. 9 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
But in the absence of senior forward Isaiah Livers, who remains sidelined indefinitely with a foot stress injury, Brooks has stepped up offensively. He’s averaging 15 points over the Wolverines’ last four games, and his 52-percent clip from beyond the arc over that span has stretched opposing defenses.
“My shot is feeling as good as it has all year,” Brooks said. “Coaches always say, ‘Next shot mentality. Take the shots when you’re open.’ That’s what I’ve been doing.”
At the national level, Brooks doesn’t get nearly as much credit as he deserves. That goes well beyond just this season. Along with Livers and fifth-year senior Austin Davis, he’s played an instrumental role in Michigan’s smooth transition from John Beilein to Juwan Howard. Without his steadying presence, it’s fair to wonder whether the Wolverines would still be hanging a regular season Big Ten championship banner.
And if Michigan hangs another banner this season, Brooks will be a major reason why.
“Within our family and our culture, we know what he provides,” Howard said. “… (If you) watch our games, you understand why we appreciate Eli and what he brings to the table night in and night out. He’s our glue guy.”