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Spring Grove grad Eli Brooks misses game, leaves 'huge void,' in Michigan's first loss

JAMES HAWKINS
The Detroit News (TNS)
Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) passes ahead of Wisconsin guard D'Mitrik Trice (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Senior guard Eli Brooks has been a vital piece to Michigan's success this season.

His importance on both ends was evident on Saturday, even though he didn't suit up and was sidelined with a right foot strain as the Wolverines were handed their first loss, 75-57, at Minnesota.

"Missing a guy like Eli, who is a great stabilizer for this group, was a huge void for us," coach Juwan Howard said. "We missed his presence out there."

The Spring Grove High School graduate is considered the team's best perimeter and on-ball defender who routinely draws the toughest backcourt assignment. He's also a reliable ball-handler who can run and initiate the offense with or without grad transfer guard Mike Smith on the floor.

But more important than the 8.7 points, 3.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 37.2% 3-point shooting Brooks brings is all the little things he does that impact winning.

"He's a facilitator, he's a threat and his IQ is on a different level," senior forward Isaiah Livers said. "He sets off the ball screens that get shooters open, get himself open, makes some great plays, knows how to calm the offense. He has great pace to his game.

"He's an everything guy for us and losing a guy like Eli Brooks can't go unnoticed. He's a leader. He's a senior. He did a great job on the bench, but it's different not having him out there cause he's our on-ball defender, he's the guy. He's our glue guy that gets us going."

Out of sync without Brooks: Without Brooks, the Wolverines were out of sync and out of sorts against the Gophers the entire game.

On defense, Michigan wasn't as stingy as it had been in recent weeks and allowed Minnesota to shoot 46.8% from the field (29-for-62), including a blistering 60.7% in the second half.

On offense, Michigan was careless and sloppy, turning over the ball over a season-high 20 times while shooting a season-worst 39.3% from the field (22-for-56).

"It was lot different," senior guard Chaundee Brown said of not having Brooks on the court. "He's one of the key defenders. He gets us in our offense. He does everything for us really."

Brooks' absence felt in numerous areas: Brooks' absence also affected Michigan's substitutions, rotation and bench play. The Wolverines had to play Smith for 37 minutes, including the entire first half, and had to put more on Brown's plate as he moved into the starting lineup.

Smith was primarily turned into a facilitator and recorded a career-high 10 assists but finished with no points on six shot attempts. Brown finished with a team-high 14 points and held his own against Minnesota's Marcus Carr, who finished with 17 points on 18 shots.

But when Brown needed a breather and checked out with Michigan trailing 41-35 in the second half, Howard turned to freshman guard Zeb Jackson to fill the gap. During a stretch that lasted less than three minutes, Jackson missed two 3-pointers and committed a turnover as Minnesota went on a 7-0 run and never looked back.

"He (Brown) asked for a blow," Howard said. "We were ready to go with Zeb. Zeb had some tough plays where he missed a few shots. Also some turnovers that he made. But we're going to watch film with him so he can learn from that, which he will.

"If anyone is more disappointed with those minutes, it would be Zeb. I don't want him to beat himself up. It gave them a good run. From there, we kept trying to catch up and we could never cut the lead (down)."

All he could do was watch: In the end, Minnesota hammered Michigan 10 days after the Wolverines rolled the Gophers by 25 points in Ann Arbor — and all Brooks could do was watch the 43-point turnaround.

Michigan announced roughly an hour before tip-off that Brooks strained his right foot during practice this week and is listed as day to day. Howard didn't provide any further details after the game, though Brown said Brooks was in a boot during Friday's practice.

After Saturday's blowout, Michigan will look to bounce back — and hopefully get Brooks back — in Tuesday's rematch against Maryland.

"It's not a surprise to the team or the staff that Eli Brooks means a lot to this group," Howard said. "With his leadership and also his play on both ends of the floor, you can see that he was truly missed."