Spring Grove's Eli Brooks talks after his team's 77-67 win over Northeastern Friday night.
IOWA CITY — Saddi Washington recently gave Eli Brooks a three-word directive.
"Shoot the ball."
Friday night, the Spring Grove High School graduate obliged.
Michigan basketball's starting shooting guard scored a career-high 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting in a 90-81 loss at Iowa. Brooks kept the Wolverines afloat in the first half with 14 points. He kept firing away in the final halve, too, adding 11 more points.
It was an assertive, efficient performance from Brooks — the exact type of game he hadn't put together in quite some time.
Brooks entered Friday's game mired in a weird, month-long on-and-off slump. In his previous four games against high-major opponents, he had made just 8-of-29 of his field-goal attempts and shot 1-of-15 from 3-point range. Sandwiched in between was a two-game stretch when he combined for 31 points on 12-of-23 shooting against Presbyterian and Massachusetts-Lowell.
Yet the Wolverines couldn't afford for Brooks to stop shooting against tougher competition. Even after his recent cold stretch, he still had the team's third-highest 3-point shooting percentage. Michigan both wanted and needed Brooks to let it fly from outside and work for open looks.
"When a guy who works as hard as he does and shoots the ball like he does, him not shooting is almost like a turnover, especially when he’s open," Washington (one of U-M's three assistant coaches) told the Free Press after Friday's contest. "So you just encourage him to continue to hunt shots, take the open ones and just believe that they’re going down.
"That was pretty much the gist of the message — having confidence in yourself that you can’t come out of shooting slump if you don’t shoot the ball. So you’ve just got to be confident that the next one is going down.”
This is all relatively new territory for Brooks, who entered this season with 12 career starts (all during his freshman year). He came off the bench last season, playing 12.9 minutes per game and rarely shooting.
Then Michigan's three leading scorers departed over the offseason, as did former coach John Beilein. Brooks used the fresh start to his advantage. He claimed a spot in the starting lineup and then scored 24 points in the season opener. Three weeks later, he hit that mark again in a win over North Carolina. Through the first seven games, Brooks was shooting 50% from 3-point range.
Naturally, opponents took notice. That meant increased attention and less room to operate on the perimeter, as teams grew mindful of Brooks' shooting ability.
"Now that people have scouted, I’m not going to get the same open shots," Brooks said. "So you’ve got to shoot it in different ways, you’ve got to create your shot in different ways."
Brooks, who had never been used to being near the top of an opponent's scouting report, realized he had to adjust. He couldn't rely on the same preparation that had led to his success early this season. He started to search for different ways to get open, such as attacking close-outs by using a defender's speed and momentum against him.
“Whether it’s getting a shot off a little bit quicker or using our shot fakes a little bit more to get guys up in the air because they’re going to fly out at you, to get some separation, those are things we work on in practice," Washington said.
Meanwhile, as he struggled to make shots, Brooks sought to produce in other ways. He has tried to make high-energy plays by diving for loose balls and scrapping for rebounds. And his defense has drawn high praise from Juwan Howard, who said Friday that Brooks has been one of the team's best defenders.
"Eli has been the competitor that we’ve asked him to be," Howard said. "He’s shown that he’s dependable. I’m very happy with Eli. He’s one of our leaders, and I’m just proud of his performance."
Still, the Wolverines recognized that the team's offense — especially without Isaiah Livers, the second-leading scorer and top 3-point shooter — just wasn't the same without Brooks playing at a high level. "For us to get back on the right track," Washington said, "he’s going to be a big part of that."
The Wolverines feel encouraged by what they've seen the past week.
In last Sunday's loss at Minnesota, Brooks made just 4-of-12 field goals (shooting 1-of-7 from 3) but remained confident and didn't turn down open looks. That carried over into these past few days, where Brooks says he "really hunted my shot" during Michigan's last practice. And it all culminated in Friday's performance, when he shot early and often, and nearly led the Wolverines to their first road win.
“It’s our job to try to motivate and encourage our guys through this whole process," Washington said. "It was good to see him, these last couple of away games especially, shoot the ball the way he has. We’re confident in him and his ability to make shots on the perimeter.
"Him being on the floor is important for us, and him being in a good headspace definitely leads to him playing well.”
Brooks made a statement with Friday's performance. Of course, the shots aren't always going to fall his way. There will be more bumps along the way as he forges through his first full season as a starter and key contributor.
It's his job to make sure that doesn't affect his new mindset.
"You’ve got to hunt your shots now," Brooks said. "You’ve got to be uncomfortable taking some shots that weren’t comfortable when you were just a rhythm shooter."
For the season, Brooks is averaging 11.2 points per game (fourth on the team) and shooting 43% from 3-point range, but just 40% overall from the field for the Wolverines, who are 11-6 overall and 2-4 in the Big Ten.