Ann Arbor — Michigan sophomore guard Eli Brooks has appeared to rediscover two things in the young season — his confidence and his shooting stroke.
According to Michigan coach John Beilein, most freshmen battle bouts of self-doubt when they’re not able to bounce back from off days like they used to in high school.
Brooks was no different. He went through a stretch where he was the starting point guard and then moved back to the bench where he received limited minutes all while having junior guard Zavier Simpson hound him every single day in practice.
But from last season to now, Beilein said the biggest area of growth he has seen in Brooks has been his renewed sense of confidence he has played with throughout the fall.
“I think the big thing is he knows his role right now,” Beilein said Friday. “Coach is going to look at me as the first guard off the bench, I know what I got to do. I think the comfort level in his role is a huge difference.”
Brooks noted it’s easier to play with more confidence because he has a more defined role this season as a “key contributor” who is looking for open shots for himself and others on offense at either guard position. And his comfort grows daily through repetition in practice.
“We can't take him for granted,” Beilein said. “He does so many things and he also points out things defensively to people. He'll see an action happening that we'll guard different ways and he'll tell everybody before I even see it sometimes. He's just really good at seeing the game.”
It’s a trait Brooks said was a strength of his early on. No matter if it was baseball, basketball or golf, he always had a knack for picking sports up quickly. It also helped that he would sit down and watch film with his dad, who coached him at Spring Grove (Pa.) High for all four years, to study how NBA point guards like Steve Nash and Chris Paul approached the game.
While Brooks said he likes to play with Simpson and prefers the two more, he’s unselfish and is a guy who will always move the ball, as evident by his eight total assists in the exhibition against Northwood and regular-season opener against Norfolk State.
The most pleasant stat, though, has been his shooting numbers. After shooting just 30.2 percent from the field and 24.4 percent from 3-point range last season, Brooks has missed just one shot attempt in the early going. He made both his shots, including a 3-pointer, and scored six points against Northwood and went 3-for-4 from the floor and 2-for-3 on 3s for eight points against Norfolk State.
“I get it talked about looking for my shot, hunting by Coach Saddi (Washington) all the time in practice, so that's something that they're really pushing,” Brooks said.
“Even when I was making shots he said there's still shots that you should be taking that I was passing up, but that's just something I learned.”
Beilein said freshman Brandon Johns Jr. will continue to play at the five behind junior Jon Teske and redshirt sophomore Austin Davis and will likely see some action against Holy Cross on Saturday.
“People who have played primary center in high school going to play the perimeter four in college is so different, so it's the best way to get him on the court right now,” Beilein said of Johns. “We can use Isaiah (Livers) there as well if we need to.
“He's growing every day but for a freshman, he's very normal right now. Right now, his time on the court is going to be limited until he feels more comfortable in practice”
Beilein said he wasn’t sure if Johns will stick at the five spot all season because all freshmen go through different growth spurts as far as how much their mental capacity can handle.
“There's so much coming at them that they've never had before, so they lose their confidence like Eli did last year,” Beilein said. “One of these days these guys will just go into a game and I remember the day Aubrey Dawkins we put them in the game and he just made shots. Caris LeVert, we put him in the game and he just made shots after he hadn't played much. Muhammad-Ali (Abdur-Rahkman) just made shots and defended.
“It happens. They got to get that opportunity though.”
Johns recorded four rebounds, two points and two blocks in nine minutes against Northwood and a rebound and steal in four minutes against Norfolk State.
Beilein said he thinks the team’s foul shooting (13-for-29) against Norfolk State was “first-game jitters.” After watching the film, he noticed Teske (3-for-6) was moving back instead of following through when he shot his free throws and redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews (0-for-5) was “flicking it out a little bit.”
Beilein said he believes it’s more mental than physical and even had some players meet with one of the athletics psychologists to go over visualization of free-throw shooting.
“We just have to try and get through that right now,” Beilein said. “They've been using different breathing (techniques) and everything to get themselves more relaxed. We're trying everything. Hypnosis might be next.”
… One of the key stats assistant coach Luke Yaklich charts is contest rate. According to Beilein, Teske contested all 20 shots he faced against Norfolk State and forced 18 misses.
… Beilein said he expects to primarily play man defense like last season, but the team still practices zone defense in case it’s needed to “change up the pace of the game.”
Holy Cross at Michigan
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Michigan 1-0, Holy Cross 1-0
Outlook: Holy Cross scored 93 points in its opener — its most points against a Division I opponent since 2013 — and is led by senior forward Jehyve Floyd, who was last season’s Patriot League defensive player of the year …This is second campus game for Michigan as part of the 2018 Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.