Niyo: Fog lifting, outlook much brighter for Michigan's Eli Brooks

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Chicago — Eli Brooks figures he tried just about everything.

Meditation. Visualization. But try as he might, his game — and the confidence that’s necessary to play it at this level in college basketball — seemed lost in a fog.

Michigan bench reacts during the first half against Iowa.

Michigan’s sophomore guard went more than two full months without making a 3-point shot in a game this winter. He went from shooting 41 percent from behind the line in November to 25 percent in December to a goose egg in January and February.

And as his self-assurance waned, eventually so did his minutes. Michigan coach John Beilein felt compelled to give freshman David DeJulius a crack at the No. 3 role in the Wolverines’ backcourt down the stretch in Big Ten play.

All the while, though, Brooks kept hearing the same thing from the coaching staff. From his teammates, too.

“Coach gives him the green light to shoot any shot he wants to,” assistant coach DeAndre Haynes said Friday night after Michigan’s 74-53 dismantling of Iowa in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. “So I just keep trying to put that in his head: ‘You can do this. Take the next shot. I don’t care if you miss it. Take the next one, and the next one, and the next one.’ And that’s what he started doing.”

Farewell to the funk

Brooks finally made one last weekend in the loss at Michigan State, knocking down his first 3-pointer since a Dec. 30 game against Binghamton. He’d gone 0-for-8 in the interim, hesitating and passing up shots left and right. And Haynes said he could see signs the last couple weeks that Brooks might be ready to snap out of a months-long funk.

Haynes kept instructing Brooks to watch some of his own high school highlights, just to remind him what a good shooter he can be. Fellow sophomore Isaiah Livers continually hounded him with the same positive spin.

“Sometimes we shoot after practice and I’ll be like, ‘Dude, you just made six or seven in a row, so please shoot in the game,’ ” Livers said.

This month, the coaches practically demanded it. They'd given Brooks scout-team assignments the last couple weeks, having him play the role of Maryland's Anthony Cowan and Michigan State's Cassius Winston in practice. The past few days, they had him playing the role of Iowa sharpshooter Jordan Bohannon, who jacked up nearly 200 3-pointers this season. Brooks didn’t just mimic him taking the 3-pointers, either. He made them.

“It’s amazing,” Beilein joked Friday night. “It’s a magical formula. Change his jersey, tell him he’s somebody else, and they play out of their minds.”

So when Beilein asked Haynes on Friday who he thought should be the first guard off the bench against the Hawkeyes, his assistant didn’t hesitate.

“I said, ‘Eli,’ and then he came out and did what he does,” Haynes said. “He made some jumpers. Defensively, he played well. He made the right reads. He played solid. And that’s what we need from him.”

Making a difference

Friday, he gave Michigan nearly 19 productive minutes off the bench in the rout of Iowa, a stretch that included a pair of 3-pointers on five attempts — “It feels a lot better coming off my hand, even if it’s not going in,” Brooks said — along with three assists and two steals. When Jordan Poole joined Charles Matthews on the bench with two fouls early in the second half, Brooks checked in with Michigan leading by 12. When he checked out 6 minutes later, the lead had ballooned to 24.

“It’s just his confidence,” Livers said. “Everybody can see how confident he is taking shots he should’ve been taking all season. But better late than never, man.”

Brooks barely played in the postseason a year ago. A 5-minute stint in the NCAA opener against Montana was the longest run he got last March. But that won't cut it this time around, and Michigan is desperate for the kind of contribution Brooks gave them Friday night.

“It puts a big smile on my face — I’m so proud of him,” Haynes said. “And if he can play that way the rest of the season, we can be a hell of a team.”

Twitter @JohnNiyo