Ann Arbor — Michigan has already experienced life without junior forward Isaiah Livers, freshman wing Franz Wagner and senior guard Zavier Simpson.
On Thursday night, the Wolverines got their first taste of what it’s like to not have junior guard Eli Brooks in the lineup.
With Brooks out with a broken nose he suffered last Saturday at Purdue, his absence was felt on both ends as Michigan turned in its second-worst defensive performance of the season in an 81-74 loss to Wisconsin at Crisler Center.
“He's been the anchor of our defense,” coach Juwan Howard said. “We missed his activity, we missed his energy, being able to guard guys, attention to detail when it comes to the scouting report. That guy is a Swiss Army knife.
“We not only missed him on the defensive end, but we missed him offensively being able to just keep our offense running at a nice, smooth pace.”
The Badgers got off to a blistering start and never cooled off. They averaged 1.23 points per possession, shot 53.7 percent (29-for-54) from the field and left the Wolverines lamenting their energy, effort and execution.
The Badgers also made 11 3-pointers — the most Michigan has allowed this season — and took away the deep ball on defense, holding the Wolverines to season lows in made 3s (three) and 3-point attempts (10).
Brooks is a key cog to Michigan’s entire operation. He can play on the ball, run the offense and facilitate when needed, but he’s primarily utilized as an off-the-ball option who can space the floor. He averages 11 points, 3.7 rebounds and two assists in 32.2 minutes per game. He also shoots 36.8 percent from 3-point range and leads the team with 49 made 3s.
But even when hits shots aren’t falling, Brooks makes a difference with his defense, which is something Howard has pointed out several times this season. Howard noted he was surprised that Brooks isn’t in the running for defensive player of the year, an award that Simpson is up for.
Brooks has often been lauded for his basketball IQ as well as his ability to anticipate a pass or play before it happens. He has also commonly been described as another coach on the floor.
On most nights, Brooks has drawn the tougher backcourt assignment. In the rematch against Michigan State earlier this month, Brooks proved to be the solution to slowing down star guard Cassius Winston, who shot 5-for-18 from the field and was never able to get into a rhythm. Brooks likely would’ve guarded Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice, who poured in 28 points and hit several huge 3-pointers in the second half.
“Eli is maybe our best defender on the team,” Wagner said. “He brings it every night, so (not having him) hurts us.”
With Brooks out, Howard opted to go with a bigger lineup and inserted sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. in as a starter. Howard said he didn’t start sophomore guard David DeJulius because he didn’t want to risk his two primary ball-handlers — Simpson and DeJulius — both getting into early foul trouble.
While the big lineup gave Michigan a clear size advantage, it was ineffective against Wisconsin’s three-guard lineup. The Wolverines struggled to communicate on switches and had a difficult time staying in front the Badgers’ smaller, quicker players as they carved them up.
DeJulius called the defensive performance “soft” and acknowledged Brooks’ absence played a part in the letdown.
“Eli is smart player as everyone knows. Just very, very solid in every aspect of the game and we missed that,” DeJulius said. “He did as best as he could on the bench leading us. In practice, he was surreal in practice just leading us on the defensive end. We have to come out and do better.
“He’s for sure a great asset to our team just as any other guy that wasn’t playing before. We miss him.”
It was the latest example that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts for Michigan. When the Wolverines are at full strength, every player has his role and all the pieces align. But when one of the Wolverines’ key rotational players is missing, it seemingly throws everything off.
Whether Howard is left searching for answers without Brooks again remains to be seen. Howard said Brooks, who sported a bandage on his nose during Thursday’s contest, wasn’t “feeling well (enough) to go” against Wisconsin and his status moving forward is unclear.
"We don't have any time to make excuses nor we do not have time to put our heads down,” Howard said. “We're right back at it on Sunday against Ohio State.”
Hopefully for Michigan, Brooks will be back, too.
Michigan at Ohio State
Tip-off: 4 p.m. Sunday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Records: No. 19 Michigan 18-10, 9-8; No. 23 Ohio State 19-9, 9-8
Outlook: Zavier Simpson is one game away from tying Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s program mark of 144 career games played…Michigan lost the first meeting between the teams, 61-58, on Feb. 4 but has won its last four Big Ten road games…Ohio State has won seven of nine, including its last four home games. The Buckeyes are led by junior big man Kaleb Wesson (14 points and 9.6 rebounds).