KAHN: Retaining productive veteran Eli Brooks is ultimate luxury for Michigan basketball

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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)

The Michigan men’s basketball team would have survived without Eli Brooks. But Michigan is in a much better place with him.

The Spring Grove High School graduate has played the last four seasons at Michigan, appearing in 125 games. He’s never had a long-term injury. In the past, those facts would preclude him from continuing his college career. This season, though, didn’t count against a player’s eligibility limit. Seniors are allowed to stay in school.

Brooks will do just that, the only one of Michigan’s five scholarship seniors to make that decision.

It’s a major coup for a Michigan team whose experience level is set to dip dramatically.

Brooks, the starting shooting guard each of the past two seasons, has played both guard spots over his career. He averaged 31 minutes, 9.5 points, 3.1 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game last year. He shot 40 percent from 3 (38-for-96) and was considered by his teammates and coaches as one of the team’s best defenders.

Starting point guard Mike Smith, a graduate transfer, will pursue an NBA career, leaving Brooks as the only returning guard with significant experience. Zeb Jackson, who will be a sophomore, played sparingly last season. Michigan will bring in six freshmen next year, including guards Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin. Newcomers Isaiah Barnes and Caleb Houstan could also potentially play in the backcourt.

Writing Brooks’ name, in permanent ink, in the starting lineup has to be a relief for Michigan head coach Juwan Howard.

“Having the ‘Professor’ back is only going help our team, our culture and me!” Howard tweeted. “Eli never ceases to amaze us with his knowledge of the game.”

Michigan assistant Phil Martelli called Brooks the team’s “most valuable player.” Teammates have said he’s the “glue” that holds everything together on the court. He keeps the offense flowing and directs traffic defensively. Statistics bear this out.

Brooks has been an important piece on several deep postseason runs. Michigan has posted a record of 105-32 over the past four years. Brooks has been right in the middle of it. (And will smash the program’s all-time wins record next year, though of course the current record-holders only had four seasons to do it.)

Michigan’s other seniors have opted to leave school, the program has announced. Isaiah Livers is recovering from foot surgery but has NBA aspirations. Smith and Chaundee Brown Jr. will enter the NBA draft. Austin Davis will explore playing overseas.

The program is currently at its max allotment of 13 scholarships for next season — Brooks won’t count against that number — but sophomore Franz Wagner, a potential NBA draft lottery pick, might leave. That would open up a spot, and Michigan could turn to the transfer portal to fill it with a veteran player.

Any offseason additions are less important given Brooks’ decision. Howard preaches “next man up,” and he would have figured out a path forward without Brooks. It’s a path he won't have to follow, however, because Brooks will provide a luxury that will make Michigan better.