Niyo: Michigan’s NCAA Tournament success sweetens transfer debate

Who’s to say Chaundee Brown and Eli Brooks can’t both be right?       …

Niyo: Michigan's NCAA Tournament success sweetens transfer debate 1
Niyo: Michigan's NCAA Tournament success sweetens transfer debate 2

You can pick sides if you want. And we’re all free to choose the narratives we want to believe in when it comes to college sports.

But here was a reminder from Michigan’s basketball team Monday night. Maybe even a rebuttal, as the Wolverines clinched their fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance with a thrilling 86-78 win over LSU in the NCAA Tournament.

Who says you can’t have it both ways?

Or more to the point, who’s to say Chaundee Brown and Eli Brooks can’t both be right?

Because that celebration that spilled off the court at Lucas Oil Stadium and into the Wolverines’ victorious locker room, that was why Brown came to Michigan. It’s also why Brooks stayed.

And in the endless good-versus-evil debate over NCAA transfer rules — one that’s only escalating after another nuclear winter for college athletics’ governing body — that’s a point worth remembering. 

Actually, it was 42 memorable points — a season-high 21 apiece — for two of Michigan’s seniors, each of whom took different routes to get to a place where they’re both proving to be indispensable.

Brown, the 6-foot-5 wing who transferred from Wake Forest last May, came off the bench to give Michigan a huge lift in Monday’s win, knocking down three 3-pointers — each one bigger than the last — and scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half as the Wolverines outlasted a more athletic LSU team to advance.

“I mean, you know what you’re going to get with Chaundee every single day,” Brooks said afterward. “He brings a lot of energy. It was good to see him make some shots, because that smile goes a long way for the team. His energy, his presence, it helps the team. It brings the defense to a higher level.”

That was certainly true Monday, as Michigan outscored LSU by 19 points when Brown was on the court. Still, Brooks had a hand in everything, too.

The 6-foot-4 guard, playing in his 123rd game in a Michigan uniform, kept the Wolverines close early with his shooting, then flawlessly ran the point during a critical stretch late in the first half. He finished 5-for-9 from three-point range — he’s now 14-for-27 this postseason — and added seven assists with just one turnover in 32 minutes while playing his usual stellar defense as well.

“Eli has been like this since the last year I started coaching him,” Howard said. “He’s a basketball guy, has a high IQ. Very underrated in a lot of ways, offensively and defensively. But within our family and our culture, we know what he provides.”

‘Glue guy’ sticks around

Brooks has long been the unsung “glue guy” for the Wolverines, according to Howard. He’s the one that assistant coach Phil Martelli matter-of-factly calls “the most valuable player on this team, plain and simple.” But he’s also the one few would have blamed if he’d opted to transfer elsewhere just a couple years ago, after John Beilein abruptly resigned as Michigan’s head coach to take a job with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Instead, Brooks stayed, along with classmates Isaiah Livers and Austin Davis, placing his trust in Howard and in the work he’d already put in his first two years in Ann Arbor, though he’d averaged less than 13 minutes a game as a sophomore.

“That’s really neat to see, because he stuck in there,” said Beilein, who spent some time this winter working as an analyst for the Big Ten Network. “Those guys have stuck it out — Eli, Isaiah and Austin. It’s a good story. They had a coaching change and they’ve stuck in there and they just did it. It’s tremendous. It’s what’s college athletics should be all about, really.”

But so is this, honestly. Hearing Brown talk about his March Madness introduction on a late-night Zoom call, not long after he had the honor of slapping Michigan’s name on the life-size bracket back at the team hotel in Indianapolis. Hearing him laugh about all the unanswered text messages that would have to wait until he’d had time to eat and sleep. Hearing him talk about how he’d taken the initiative to make this senior moment happen for himself, leaving a featured role to be part of a supporting cast.

Look, we’ve heard all the hand-wringing from coaches about the transfer rule. How it’ll lead to countless poor decisions from players, teach the wrong lessons about facing adversity, and create the “wild, wild West,” as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo put it.

But then you hear from Brown, who spent his first three years in college at Wake Forest, where the NCAA Tournament feels like a distant memory anymore. He was a starter throughout his time there, but Wake Forest won as many games (33) in his three seasons there as Brooks did in his freshman year alone. So last spring, after a talk with his parents and despite a last-minute sales pitch from Wake Forest’s coaches, he entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal. He wasn’t looking to go somewhere simply to be a star, or to boost his NBA stock. 

“I just wanted to win,” said Brown, who has thrived as Michigan’s sixth man all season.

And prior to Monday night’s game, he says he got a text from his mother reminding him of that.

“She was just saying that ‘This is your time,’” he said. “You changed schools to be in this position. So you just gotta make things happen.”

College free agency

That’s happening everywhere now, of course. And for all sorts of reasons, from coaching changes to playing time to parental malpractice, in some cases.

As of noon Tuesday, there were 731 Division I men’s basketball players with active-status entries in the NCAA’s transfer portal, and more than 550 of those names have been added in the last month. Scores more will join them after 52 teams saw their seasons end in the NCAA Tournament this past week. And as the annual college coaching carousel continues to spin, others no doubt will decide to explore their options as well.

Better get used to it, too, because this era of so-called “free agency” in college sports is here to stay, in one form or another. After the Final Four, the NCAA is expected to pass a rule change that will allow college athletes one penalty-free transfer in their career, though further legislation may curtail that. That’s on top of an earlier ruling granting an extra year of eligibility to winter-sport athletes due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

And you can already hear it in the way college basketball coaches talk about building their programs.

Take LSU’s Will Wade, for example. (Bad example, I know, but the NCAA doesn’t seem to care, right?) Anyway, when asked Monday night about his team’s outlook for next season, with a few of his top scorers — including star freshman guard Cameron Thomas — likely entering the NBA draft, Wade sounded more like an NFL general manager than a college coach.

With “two or three scholarships to mess around with,” Wade said, “we’re going to try to mix in some veteran guys here in the spring.” If LSU can “add a couple veteran pieces,” he added, “I think we can be right back where we are tonight.”

So that’s where we are these days, like it or not. And frankly, that’s why Michigan’s still playing in this tournament. Howard went out and added a couple veteran pieces in Brown and point guard Mike Smith, an Ivy League grad transfer, last spring, partly to make up for that 2019 recruiting class hampered by Beilein’s late departure.

Both players proved to be ideal program fits, on and off the court. Talented players, selfless teammates, high-character leaders. And the end result, according to Brooks, is “this is the deepest team I’ve ever been a part of.”

One he’s glad he stuck around to lead. And as for Brown?

“I feel like I made the right decision for myself and my career,” he said. “I’m in that spot right now, and I’m so happy.”

Hard to argue with either of them, really.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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