Michigan's Postseason Might Hinge on Injured Eli Brooks’ Prognosis
Michigan clinched the Big Ten title Thursday night in Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines played like it Sunday in a 70-64 loss to Michigan State. They were outhustled, outworked, settled for bad shots and never found their groove after senior Eli Brooks went down with an ankle injury after scoring five early points.
The loss was what it was. Other than the sting of falling to a rival, a victory for MSU that ended any doubt that the Spartans would make the NCAA Tournament, the on-court setback meant little. Head coach Juwan Howard probably won’t agree, and he’ll rip his team’s effort on the glass, loose balls and everything else.
But the biggest loss Sunday was undoubtedly Brooks, whose absence clearly makes the Wolverines a different team. They felt it in a loss at Minnesota and again Sunday. The Spartans scored 50 in a 69-50 blowout loss Thursday, but they had that with 8:13 remaining Saturday, getting a strong showing from the previously moribund Rocket Watts (21 points).
"I don't have much information to give you about Eli's injury," he said. "When we get home we'll take a little look and see and have the doctor take a look at it."
Watts had previously been in double figures only twice since January, and U-M missed Brooks’ defense on the talented but repressed sophomore.
U-M is now 0-2 without Brooks and looks all kinds of out-of-sorts, especially with the lineups Howard played Sunday. He went with little-used frosh Zeb Jackson for extended minutes, played a lot of Brandon Johns and Austin Davis off the bench — neither offered much — and saw one of his team’s worst offensive performances of the year.
Brooks was carried from the floor with what was later confirmed to be a left ankle injury. He walked gingerly to the locker room on his own midway through the first half before returning in a walking boot just before the half, spent much of the second half in the locker room before emerging again in a boot.
It took the wind out of the sails, and though U-M battled back to cut the lead from 11 to six with just under five minutes remaining, then to 61-59 at 1:15 on a Hunter Dickinson three-point play, they couldn't finish the comeback. They missed the front ends of two one-and-ones and shot only 7-for-22 from long range.
Josh Langford hit a dagger with 45 seconds remaining on a usually uncharacteristic open look from three that pushed the lead to five, and the Spartans held on.
Without Brooks, the Wolverines’ ceiling is considerably lower. Regardless the circumstances, they limp into the postseason — literally and figuratively — losers of two of their last three games and not the well-oiled machine they were earlier in the year.
U-M will still be the Big Ten Tournament No. 1 seed and play Friday against the winner of Rutgers and MSU. There’s also little doubt they’ll be an NCAA No. 1 seed despite the recent swoon given their entire body of work.
Getting Brooks back, though, might determine just how far they go.
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