Wednesday night, Eli Brooks will return to the state where he became a high school basketball sensation.
Brooks’ Michigan team will visit State College to take on Penn State in a Big Ten game that has huge March Madness implications for both.
Two months ago, lots of folks in Spring Grove likely had this game circled on their calendars.
At that time, Brooks was Michigan’s starting point guard — no small feat for a true freshman at a tradition-rich, power-five program.
The former Spring Grove High School standout wasn’t setting the world on fire, but he was a steady contributor for the Wolverines.
During one eight-game stretch, from late November through early December, he averaged about six points, two assists and 20 minutes per game — mostly as a starter.
It appeared as if Brooks had become a fixture in Coach John Beilein’s rotation.
That likely was no surprise to Brooks’ many fans in Papertown, who had watched the 6-footer almost single-handedly turn a moribund Rockets’ program into a York-Adams League and District 3 power.
Under the guidance of his father and coach, James, Eli poured in more than 2,400 career points and led Spring Grove to 46 wins over his final two seasons, including a league championship in 2016. The all-state performer would eventually become the most highly-coveted boys' basketball recruit in York County history.
Eli’s games quickly became must-see community events. A Spring Grove gym that was mostly empty for Rockets’ games before Eli’s arrival suddenly became packed on a regular basis.
In many ways, Eli became a revered figure in Spring Grove, and not just because of his success on the court. Off the court, according to nearly every report, Eli seemed like a genuinely nice young man.
So the people in Spring Grove were undoubtedly proud to see him earn a starting role as a true freshman with the Wolverines.
Bad patch: Then, just before New Year’s Day, Eli hit a bad patch at Michigan. During a four-game stretch, his normally-reliable shooting touch seemingly abandoned him. During that period, he went 1 for 10 from the field and he managed a total of four points.
The low-water mark came against Jacksonville on Dec. 30, when Eli played a season-high 23 minutes, but failed to score a point.
Since that time, Eli’s playing time has steadily decreased. He has not played more than 10 minutes in any of the 14 games since then and he has not played at all in Michigan’s last three games. That just happened to coincide with Michigan hitting the bulk of its Big Ten schedule. During conference season, the bodies get bigger and the play gets more physical, which may present a problem for the slightly-built 170-pound former Rocket.
Whatever the issue, Eli hasn’t scored a point yet in 2018.
Getting replaced: He’s been replaced in Michigan’s starting lineup by sophomore Zavier Simpson.
That’s not surprising. In 24 games, including 12 starts, Eli is shooting 30 percent from the field, including 26 percent from 3-point range. He’s averaging 2.2 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.
Simpson, in contrast, in 29 games, including 17 starts, is shooting 48 percent from the field, including 34 percent from 3-point range. He’s averaging 6.7 points, 3.7 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game.
Eli has also apparently been supplanted by senior Jaaron Simmons as Simpson’s primary backup.
According to a Michigan sports information official, Eli has no injury issues. It appears he’s simply been passed over in favor of other players who are more productive.
Luster taken off game: The fact that Eli is getting little or no playing time has certainly taken some luster off Wednesday’s game at Penn State — at least for folks from York County.
Many were hoping to see Eli take on a much-improved PSU club and the Nittany Lions’ dynamic point guard Tony Carr.
Now, that almost certainly won’t happen.
Eli will be dressed and ready to play, but if recent history is any indication, he will see little, if any, playing time.
That’s too bad.
Highly-anticipated contest: There will still likely be a sizable contingent of York County fans in the Bryce Jordan Center for the 7 p.m. Wednesday tip-off, including James Brooks. They’ll still get to see a highly-anticipated game.
Michigan is 22-7 overall and 11-5 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are ranked No. 17 by the Associated Press. Penn State is 19-10 overall, 9-7 in the Big Ten and received six points in the most recent AP poll.
Barring a complete collapse, Michigan appears destined for an NCAA tournament berth, while PSU will likely need a strong finish to earn an NCAA bid.
A win over Michigan on Wednesday would certainly give the Lions a huge boost in that direction.
For those who can’t be at the Jordan Center, the game will be televised to a national audience on the Big Ten Network.
Eli unlikely to get much time: If you plan to watch in person, or on TV, just don’t expect to see a lot of Eli.
That’s what happens on the big-time college level. You must produce, or the coach will find someone else who can.
That doesn’t mean that Eli's Michigan career is over — far from it. He’s just a true freshman enduring typical first-year growing pains.
It’s clear Eli has the talent to compete in the Big Ten. Beilein wouldn’t have started him for 12 games if he didn’t believe in him.
It’s also clear, however, that Eli is suffering from a mini-crisis of confidence in his shooting ability.
Beilein talks about Eli: "He had his best day in a while (Monday) on the scout team," Beilein said Tuesday during a media availability leading up to the PSU game. "(He) really had a good day. But the bodies are bigger (in Big Ten games). He’s an outstanding shooter, and for some reason he went three or four weeks where he didn’t make a shot in practice. So it’s not like it’s ‘hey let’s put him in the game and see if he can make them.’ He’s got to show that confidence, and it happens a lot to a lot of people. … during their careers. They’ll have some tough times."
Despite that relatively upbeat statement from Beilein, it would still be a surprise if Eli sees more than a few minutes of action Wednesday during his return to Pennsylvania.
The game is simply too vital for the Wolverines to put in a player who is lacking confidence in his shooting touch.
Of course, it’s likely not a problem that a few made 3-pointers couldn’t cure. Until that happens, however, Eli will probably have to watch and learn while sitting mostly on the bench.
For his many fans in York County, who were hoping to see him play Wednesday, that’s a real disappointment.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.