Michigan will try to keep 'ship afloat’ until Spring Grove High grad Eli Brooks returns

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Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) makes a layup as Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Whenever Eli Brooks opens his mouth, it’s clear how much Michigan basketball means to him.

It has nothing to do with anything the Spring Grove High School graduate might say. It’s because he’s missing a tooth, lost in a game earlier this season while hustling after a loose ball.

And so, his teammate Hunter Dickinson said on Wednesday: “Whenever it’s physically possible to be back, I think he’ll back.”

When that will be is unclear.

Michigan’s postseason begins on Friday in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.

Brooks, Michigan’s starting shooting guard, injured his left ankle a few minutes into the regular-season finale at Michigan State on Sunday, an eventual loss. He is wearing a boot and rehabbing, according to a team spokesperson. He was an observer, not a participant, in Tuesday’s practice, according to Dickinson.

Brooks, a senior, entered Sunday averaging 31.2 minutes, 8.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, and three assists per game. Coaches and teammates regularly highlight his contributions beyond the box score. Brooks and Franz Wagner are viewed as the team’s best defenders.

“He’s the most valuable player on this team, plain and simple,” assistant coach Phil Martelli said Monday night on the Inside Michigan Basketball Radio show. “The most invaluable piece, both to his teammates and to the coaching staff, is Eli Brooks.” Martelli mentioned Brooks’ defense, his ability to make clutch shots, and how he takes pressure off point guard Mike Smith.

“His IQ and willingness to share his knowledge with teammates and coaches during practice, that’s why I say he’s the most valuable player on this team.”

Michigan has a talented sixth man in Chaundee Brown, who figures to start if Brooks can’t play. It was Brown who started when Brooks missed the Jan. 16 game at Minnesota with a right foot injury. It was one of Michigan’s three losses this season.

Freshman guard Zeb Jackson also saw more time than usual on Sunday — he hadn’t played in five of Michigan’s previous eight games. Jackson didn’t attempt a shot in his eight minutes, grabbing a rebound, handing out an assist, and committing a foul.

“He’s comfortable,” Martelli said. “He’s not a guy that’s dropped his head and kicked his feet and is mumbling under breath about not getting a chance. His on-court work by himself and his willingness to go into film study and to listen — to really listen to (assistant) Howard Eisley — I have a boost of confidence that I didn’t have six weeks ago.”

Uncertain status: Michigan hopes it can return to the rotation it used most of the season, with Brooks starting and playing heavy minutes.

Head coach Juwan Howard declined to provide an update on Monday. Don’t expect anything official before Friday.

“I hope he can play,” Wagner said on Wednesday. “I don’t know if he can play. I’m sure if he somehow is able to play, Eli wants to play. He will be out there if he can. But I’m really not sure.”

If the Wolverines were to win on Friday — against either Maryland or Michigan State — they would play again on Saturday. The Big Ten Tournament title is on Sunday, just before the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced. That event starts next Friday, March 19.

Said Dickinson of Brooks: “We’re going to miss him a lot, but we’ve got the guys to step up and help us keep the ship afloat.”

Asked for clarification on Brooks’ status, Dickinson said: “However long he’s out. Shoot, I miss him right now, not being with him. In practice and stuff like that, him being on the sideline yesterday, it was obviously different. You just miss him for however long he’s out. … We’re just trying to keep the ship afloat until he can rejoin us eventually.”