At end of long career, Spring Grove High grad Eli Brooks becomes ultimate 'Michigan man'

Michigan guard Eli Brooks shoots over Colorado State forward Dischon Thomas (11) during the second half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

There’s less than a minute left in a two-point game and the shot clock is winding down.

The ball, wisely, has found Eli Brooks.

The Spring Grove High School graduate tries a crossover, a through-the-legs dribble, a hesitation move suggesting he might shoot.

Tennessee’s Josiah-Jordan James isn’t fooled, so Brooks puts his head down and drives right. With the taller James still smothering him, Brooks attempts a running hook shot. He’d prefer to use the backboard, but he doesn’t have the angle.

No worries. He swishes it instead. Michigan takes a four-point lead and closes out a 76-68 victory to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

“I always said Zavier Simpson was one of the best leaders to ever put on a Michigan uniform,” Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said afterwards of Brooks’ former backcourt mate. “But I also have to give that, 1A, 1B, to Eli Brooks.”

It was a fitting comparison considering Simpson deployed the hook shot so much at Michigan that he was called Captain Hook. Simpson certainly saw Brooks’ version, as he mentioned it on social media. Brooks, in his fifth and final season at Michigan and second as captain, surpassed Simpson earlier this season as the winningest player in program history.

And he’s a major reason the Wolverines are winning now. They’ve had true outliers, role players like Frankie Collins and Terrance Williams II step up off the bench. But Michigan doesn’t get to the Sweet 16, especially as an 11 seed, without its stars shining bright.

Brooks, along with sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, delivered for Michigan in two wins in Indianapolis. Brooks could even be considered an outlier given that he’s elevated his game in the NCAA Tournament. His 23-point, five-assist performance against Tennessee may have been the best of his Michigan career.

There are many to choose from. Nobody has played in more games in a Michigan uniform than Brooks.

Villanova up next: He’ll likely need to maintain his recent level of play for Michigan to keep advancing. Villanova is next, on Thursday in San Antonio (7:29 p.m. ET tip on TBS).

Villanova, the marquee program in Brooks’ home state of Pennsylvania, recruited him out of Spring Grove. Michigan’s recent matchups with the Wildcats illustrate Brooks’ ascension. In the 2018 national championship, also in San Antonio, a freshman Brooks played only the final three minutes. In a rematch early the next season, he again came off the bench. His minutes fluctuated all year.

In 2019-20, when Howard replaced John Beilein, Howard dubbed Brooks The Professor, and moved him into the starting lineup, Brooks was never the guy. That year and the next, he was a third or fourth or fifth option on teams with ball-dominant point guards and future pros.

"Head of our snake:" Not anymore. Brooks’ decision to take advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver and stick around for a fifth year has not been a luxury for Michigan. It’s been a necessity.

“He’s definitely the head of our snake,” sophomore Jace Howard said in Indianapolis.

Dickinson’s dominance in the wins over Colorado State and Tennessee can’t be discounted. Brooks, a 6-foot-1 combo guard, has been a brilliant co-star. He tallied 16 points, seven rebounds, and six assists against Colorado State.

“He’s everything when it comes to being a Michigan man,” Juwan Howard said, crediting Brooks’ play on the court and behavior off of it.

Howard said there will always be a job on his staff should Brooks want to get into coaching when he’s done playing.

He strongly considered leaving: His college career, at least, could have ended after last season, when Michigan won the Big Ten regular-season title and came within one basket of the Final Four. Brooks strongly considered leaving.

“I did everything I pretty much wanted to do,” Brooks said before this season, “other than win a national championship. I think that’s what brought me back, to win a national championship.”

Michigan started 7-7 and looked nothing like a title contender, in the Big Ten or nationally. It was hard not to think about Brooks — and Dickinson, who considered turning pro after his freshman season — coming back for this.

Michigan’s late-season push was only good enough to be the last team to get in the NCAA Tournament and avoid the play-in round.

Crashing the Sweet 16 party: The Wolverines got a late invite to the Big Dance. Now they’ve crashed the Sweet 16 party.

That’s in large part due to Brooks, who helped bury Tennessee late. With Michigan down six with 7.5 minutes left, he raced to take a handoff and hit a pull-up jumper, a play Howard always seems to dial up when Michigan’s offense has gone cold. He scored on a reverse layup off a back cut to make it a two-point game. His driving and-one gave Michigan its first lead of the second half. His aforementioned hook shot, with 52 seconds left, proved to be the dagger.

It’s not just his offense, either. Brooks regularly defends the opponent’s best perimeter player. And as his head coach and others have noted for years, Brooks has a high basketball IQ and knows where everybody on the floor is supposed to be. During games all season — and pardon the double negative here — Brooks has spent a not insignificant amount of time coaching his teammates, particularly freshman Moussa Diabaté.

Following his lead: Jace Howard called Brooks a blueprint for success, especially given his March Madness experience.

Added Williams: “He knows what it takes and we’re gonna follow his lead.”

Doing so has gotten Michigan this far, one of 16 teams still playing. Juwan Howard takes one game at a time, but for a moment after the Tennessee victory, he let his mind wander to next season, when Brooks is gone.

"It’s going to be tough to replace a guy like that,” Howard said. “He’s irreplaceable.”