Losing a regular season finale to a rival is never an ideal sendoff into the postseason. But for the Michigan Wolverines, that was hardly the most concerning development during a 70-64 loss to Michigan State on Sunday.
Just four minutes into the game, senior guard Eli Brooks turned his left ankle on his way down from a shot. He fell to the Breslin Center hardwood in pain, unable to put any weight in his left leg. Before long, Michigan coach Juwan Howard and team trainer Alex Wong needed to carry Brooks off the floor.
In a moment, the senior’s career flashed before the eyes of those watching.
He ultimately made his way back to the Wolverines’ bench wearing a walking boot, but was unable to return to the game. Whether or not his absence extends beyond Sunday remains to be seen.
“I don’t have much information for you about Eli’s injury,” Howard said after the game. “Get home, going to take a look and see after we’ve had our doctors take a look at it. But right now, I don’t have any information.”
Without Brooks, the second-ranked Wolverines looked lost offensively. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because the same storyline came out of Michigan’s first loss of the season — a 75-57 defeat at Minnesota in mid-January in which Brooks was sidelined due to a right foot injury. The Wolverines shot 39% from the field in that game, including a dismal 27% from beyond the arc. Those numbers check in well below Michigan’s season averages of 49% and 39%, respectively.
During Sunday’s loss to Michigan State, the Wolverines ran into the same problems. They shot 42% overall and 32% from deep and struggled for multiple long stretches. Michigan’s offense, which checks in at No. 6 nationally in KenPom efficiency, is built on ball movement and spacing. That has made it difficult to stop for most of this season, with games at Minnesota and the Spartans being outliers.
It’s no coincidence that Brooks watched those losses from the bench.
“I think on the defensive end and the offensive end, both ends of the floor, he makes plays offensively and defensively,” Mike Smith said. “He’s kinda the glue guy of the team. When he went down we had to figure out another way to pick up for him. That’s kind of on both sides of the ball, not just one side of the ball.”
Added Isaiah Livers: “He’s a leader, a four-year player. He knows about these rivalry games, he’s been in it four years straight.”
Without Brooks’ catch-and-shoot prowess and ability to beat closeouts off the dribble, the Wolverines lose a chunk of what makes them so efficient on offense. And as one of the Big Ten’s best perimeter defenders, he’s just as impactful at the other end of the floor.
After holding the Spartans to just 50 points on Thursday, Michigan gave up 70 on Sunday. Michigan State made five of its final eight shots from the field, and Brooks’ absence is a key reason why.
“We’ve got to do a better job of defending,” Howard said. “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 guys’ effort, but we’ve got to do a better job of being more locked into the details.”
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, it’s now time for Michigan’s first postseason under Howard. The Wolverines already secured a double-bye in this week’s Big Ten Tournament, but anything beyond that could be an uphill battle without Brooks on the floor.