HEISER: Spring Grove's Eli Brooks loses tooth, but adds to reputation as defensive stopper

STEVE HEISER
717-505-5446/@ydsports
  • Spring Grove grad Eli Brooks lost a tooth Wednesday in Michigan's win over Minnesota.
  • Brooks was being treated by a dentist before the end of the game.
  • Before his injury, Brooks' defensive efforts helped limit Minnesota star Marcus Carr to 14 points.
  • Brooks has been called the best defensive player in the Big Ten by a teammate.
Minnesota forward Isaiah Ihnen (35) collides with Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Brooks lost a tooth from the impact and left the game. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Wednesday night, Spring Grove High School graduate Eli Brooks lost one tooth and made one basket.

However, that doesn’t begin to reflect Brooks’ true value in Michigan’s 82-57 pounding of No. 16 Minnesota.

The Wolverine senior has long been lauded for his high basketball IQ. Now, the former Rockets standout is garnering a reputation as one of the top lockdown defensive guards in the Big Ten — maybe even in the nation. He’s a big reason why unbeaten Michigan (10-0) has soared to No. 10 in the latest Associated Press national poll.

Wednesday, Brooks was largely responsible for stifling Minnesota’s Marcus Carr, who entered the game as the Big Ten’s third-leading scorer at 22.1 points per game. Carr scored 14 points Wednesday, but he was just 5 for 16 from the field (31%) against Michigan, which leads the Big Ten at 5-0.

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Earning praise for his defense, hustle: After Wednesday’s victory, Brooks was described by a Michigan beat writer as the “ideal mongoose” for his defensive efforts. Brooks’ teammate, Isaiah Livers, went even further, saying the 6-foot, 1-inch Brooks is the “best defensive player in the Big Ten.”

Brooks also garnered praise from his head coach, Juwan Howard, for a hustle play early in the second half while battling for a loose ball. The resulting collision with Minnesota’s Isaiah Ilnen cost Brooks a tooth and forced him to leave the game. He was being treated by a dentist before the game ended.

Howard said Brooks put his head in harm’s way to go after a loose ball.

“I’ve seen a lot of players that will stop and back up and let the opponent grab the basketball,” Howard said.

Playing a pivotal role for the Wolverines: Brooks has played a pivotal role for a Michigan defense that is limiting opponents to just 38% shooting from the field. He’s tied for the team lead in steals (10).

"It boils down to contesting every shot," Brooks said earlier this season. "That's a big emphasis that we have — making every shot a challenge and making sure it's a hand-ball contest. I think that plays a big factor."

Michigan's Eli Brooks defends against Penn State's Sam Sessoms late in a game on Sunday, Dec. 13, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Brooks prevented Sessoms from scoring on the play.  (AP Photo/Lon Horwedel)

His effort vs. PSU: Brooks defensive prowess this season started gaining attention in mid-December in the Wolverines’ 62-58 victory over Penn State.

With Michigan clinging to a two-point lead, Brooks contested a layup attempt by Penn State guard Sam Sessoms with five seconds left. Brooks' defense prevented a potential game-tying score. 

Brooks' effort vs. PSU was much appreciated by Howard.

"He’s huge, means a lot to this team," Howard said of Brooks after the PSU game. "He’s one of our best defenders. He gets in the scouting report. I knew he wanted the man to man at the end. Awesome to see him make a winning play."

STROHECKER: 'Thank you, Eli' chant a fitting tribute

Howard said Brooks enjoys being on the spot as an end-of-the-game defender:

"Only have a few of those guys around," Howard said after the PSU win. "When you have a guy on your team, it’s a joy to coach. Eli is that person. … He’s just a glue guy."

Scoring down, but minutes up: Offensively, Brooks’ scoring is down a bit this season at 9.1 points per game, compared to 10.6 ppg as a junior. Of course, with the emergence of 7-1 freshman phenom Hunter Dickinson, who leads Michigan at 18.0 ppg, the Wolverines don't need Brooks' scoring as much this season.

Still, Brooks’ value as a defender and facilitator (3.8 assists per game, second best on the Wolverines) keep him on the floor more than any other Michigan player. Brooks has started all 10 games and leads Michigan in minutes played at 31.4, despite playing just 21 minutes on Wednesday because of his tooth injury.

Wisconsin up next: Michigan’s next scheduled game, Saturday at Penn State, has been postponed because of COVID-19 issues within the Nittany Lions program. That means Michigan’s next game is likely going to be a top-10 showdown on Tuesday, Jan. 12, vs. No. 8 Wisconsin in Ann Arbor. It will be televised nationally by ESPN.

It’s a game that lots of folks in York County will likely be very interested in. They’ll get to see arguably the two best teams in the Big Ten and one of the best defensive players in the nation — a player who just happened to learn his trade in Papertown, under the guidance of his coach and father, James.

Seems like must-see TV.

Steve Heiser is sports editor for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.