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Eli Brooks leaves behind a legacy of leadership and success

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The Michigan super senior had a profound impact during his five years in Ann Arbor.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round - Colorado State vs Michigan Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

After five years defined by leadership, growth and success, Eli Brooks’ career at the University of Michigan has finally come to a close.

The Professor — a nickname bestowed upon Brooks by current head basketball coach Juwan Howard — has quietly gone about his business in Ann Arbor since 2017. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a Michigan basketball team without Brooks on it.

As a freshman, Brooks faced a steep learning curve being only one of three freshmen in the latest cycle, joining an experienced team coming off a Sweet 16 appearance.

Brooks was the less heralded of the two freshman guards entering an experienced backcourt rotation featuring two seniors (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Jaaron Simmons), one transfer junior (Charles Matthews), two sophomores (Zavier Simpson, Ibi Watson), and fellow freshman Jordan Poole.

However, Brooks was able to carve out 10 minutes per game in head coach John Beilein’s rotation due to his high basketball I.Q. and effort on defense. Far from the shooter he would become, Brooks only averaged 1.8 points per game on shooting splits of .302/.244/.615 from field goals, threes and free throws, respectively.

As the rotation tightened up later in the season, his role began to lessen, but that did not stop The Professor from being a great teammate or taking in the valuable lessons as they pertained to winning.

Brooks was one of the raucous soldiers of the bench mob in postseason play and occasionally appeared in late game mop-up duty. While on the bench — when not going bananas from a Mo Wagner dunk — he was able to observe and absorb the integral traits that define a winning culture from a team that won its second consecutive Big Ten Tournament Championship and reached the NCAA Tournament National Championship.

Michigan would ultimately fall to Villanova in the championship, but Brooks learned the sacrifice and commitment required to win at this level and when it was his turn to deliver, he would be ready.

While his minutes barely increased as a sophomore (12.9 per game), his role greatly expanded. Brooks was one of only five Wolverines to appear in all 37 games for a team that would win 30 and reach the Sweet 16.

Brooks improved his shooting (.378/.292/.750) and served as the fourth guard and the key seventh man in the rotation. But with the departing Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole, Brooks became an incumbent starter for the 2019 Michigan Wolverines and new head coach Juwan Howard.

Finally, The Professor was at the head of the class.

But in a year that saw Brooks start 30 games, average 32 minutes per game and score 10.2 points on .410/.364/.729 splits (including his first four 20-point games), it was the most difficult season of his career.

The Wolverines had experienced their fair share of ups and downs in Howard’s first season. From two winning streaks of five or more games and a losing stretch of four consecutive games, this team could beat anyone, but also lose to anyone.

Having lost three of their last four entering the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines prepped for Rutgers and the opportunity to seize an NCAA Tournament berth with one final winning streak. Just 22 minutes before tipoff, as Michigan and Rutgers were warming up, the Big Ten Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic and just five days later, the NCAA Tournament was canceled.

In his first year as a starter on a team ready to prove themselves on the brightest stage, basketball was over and it was unclear if it would return. An offseason without team workouts was only made weightier with the death of George Floyd and the heightened sense of social injustices.

How can a team of college kids that cannot even practice together stick together?

Leadership.

Through a concerted effort by Howard, newly appointed team captain Eli Brooks and the other veterans on the team, the Wolverines became closer than ever during the uncertainty and chaos of 2020. When basketball was announced to return — albeit without fans — for the 2020-21 season, the Wolverines were ready.

Michigan came out of the gates on fire winning 18 of its first 19 games with Brooks as a centerpiece of their balanced attack. His scoring took a step back (9.8 points per game), but his efficiency picked up across the board, shooting .426/.396/.909. He also became more of a creator alongside transfer point guard Mike Smith.

The Wolverines won the regular season Big Ten title (still fake news if you live in Champaign, Illinois) and secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In the second round matchup against LSU, Brooks finally got a chance to showcase his skills on the biggest stage.

In a high-scoring game against a potent LSU attack led by Cameron Thomas, Michigan needed an offensive boost. The class was getting rowdy and The Professor needed to take over.

Brooks co-led the team with 21 points, shot 5-of-9from beyond the arc and also accounted for seven assists and four rebounds. The Wolverines prevailed and advanced to Brooks’ third Sweet 16.

Michigan would make it a step further this season to the Elite Eight before eventually falling to UCLA. In his first postseason as a starter, Brooks averaged 12.3 points per game and shot .448/.467/.800 from the field.

All year, Brooks told teammates this was his last season; that he would graduate and this run would be his last at Michigan. However, 15 days after Michigan’s loss to UCLA in the Elite Eight, Brooks decided to use COVID-19 to his advantage.

Utilizing the extra year of eligibility afforded to pandemic-impacted athletes, Brooks returned for a fifth season.

Ahead of the 2021-22 season, Brooks elaborated on his reasoning to return at Big Ten Media Days, saying, “After we suffered the loss (to UCLA), I sat down and talked to my parents and just thought why not come back for one more year?”

He took it a step further when discussing title aspirations, saying, “I have a lot of experience and I’ve done pretty much everything I have wanted to do besides win a national championship. That’s what brought me back, to win a national championship.”

As a super senior, the two-time team captain started all 34 games, led the team in minutes per game (36) and was second in points per game (12.8). Brooks shot .444/.394/.877 from the field, the latter two also both led the team.

While his final year fell short of a championship, Brooks left us with one of the most iconic shots in recent Michigan basketball history: the Brooks Hook.

In the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the No. 11 seed Wolverines faced a red hot No. 3 seed Tennessee team with realistic national title hopes. The game was contested throughout and was coming down to the wire.

Starting point guard DeVante’ Jones had not played the entire second half and the Wolverines were clinging to a two-point lead with the clock ticking and under a minute to go. The shot clock was winding down and Michigan needed a bucket to ice the game.

Class was getting rowdy again and The Professor had to take over.

Despite his crossover, hesitation move, Brooks could not shake his defender as he began his drive to the right. With potentially the game, season and his career on the line, he glided just outside the lane and launched a beautiful tear drop baby hook shot to give the Wolverines an insurmountable four-point lead.

Brooks possessed the ball for 23 seconds of this 25-second possession. He was determined to take the most important shot and no one was going to stop him.

It was a career-culminating moment that began in the spring of 2018 watching his team reach the NCAA Final from the sidelines.

Brooks and the Wolverines would ultimately be eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Villanova. The same team that ended his first season at Michigan, ended his last.

Brooks reached four Sweet 16s and played in more games than any player in program history (158). He became only the 56th player to score 1,000 career points and became only the 23rd Wolverine with 100 career starts.

His jersey will never be retired and kids in Michigan will never be named after him. But Eli Brooks’ legacy of leadership, consistent improvement and sustained success is a model any future player should strive to emulate, but few will replicate.

While The Professor has to leave Ann Arbor, his legacy has tenure.