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How Luke Yaklich and Zavier Simpson launched Michigan’s defensive renaissance

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NEW YORK — In an ironic twist of fate, Michigan has none other than Ohio State to thank for the defensive renaissance that has sparked the Wolverines to their second straight Big Ten tournament title and put them in a position to make a run at John Beilein’s second Final Four since arriving in Ann Arbor.

On June 5th of last year, the Buckeyes announced that they would be parting ways with head coach Thad Matta. Four days later, they announced that they would be replacing Matta with Butler head coach Chris Holtmann. Butler proceeded to hire former Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan away from Milwaukee, and Jordan hired Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer to his staff. To replace Jordan, Milwaukee hired Northwestern assistant coach Pat Baldwin, and to fill that void on his staff, Chris Collins reached out to Chicago-native and lifelong friend Billy Donlon, who was getting ready to head into his second season on Beilein’s staff.

Suddenly, Beilein had two openings on his coaching staff, and he filled them both in the first week of August, hiring Luke Yaklich and Deandre Haynes away from Illinois State.

As surprising as that decision was, the dots connected. Yaklich, like Beilein, spent his life as a teacher and a high school coach before breaking into the college ranks. Unlike Beilein, however, Yaklich has prided himself in his ability to get the most out of a team on the defensive end of the floor.

“As a high school coach, I focused entirely on defense,” Yaklich said. At the high school level, coaching offense is more about skill development, about making your players better shooters, better ball-handlers, better scorers. Figure out a handful of things that you can have success with and trust your players to make plays. “My high school coaches instilled that in me. When I went to Illinois State, I naturally grew into that role. We didn’t have a defensive coordinator, but my voice, that’s what I took pride in.”

At Michigan, that is, quite literally, Yaklich’s role. He was hired to coach Michigan’s defense, to be their defensive coordinator, and the success that the Wolverines have had on that end cannot be overlooked. Prior to this season, Beilein never had a team finish higher than 37th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. In the last four seasons, the Wolverines never finished higher than 69th.

“The smartest thing is I stopped coaching it so much,” Beilein said of his team’s defensive improvement. “I let other people become the voice of it. I wanted one guy, that’s all he thinks about all day long.”

Yaklich is that guy. During games, he sits right next to Beilein on the bench so that the head coach can hear everything — all the calls, all the adjustments, all the players that miss an assignment — while focusing his energy on the other end of the floor.

“He wants to make sure that he knows what’s hurting us,” Yaklich said. “He’s thinking about the next play on offense and what we went to run offensively.”

It’s worked.

On Monday morning, after rolling through the Big Ten tournament to win their second straight title, Michigan sits sixth nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

John Beilein with Luke Yaklich right next to him (Elsa/Getty Images)

Just five years removed from teaching social studies in Joliet, Ill., Yaklich was sitting in his new office in a new building at a new job when Beilein, who may one day wind up in the Hall of Fame, strolled in, sat down down and posed the question that may end up defining Yaklich’s time in Ann Arbor.

“What do you think we need to do better?” Beilein asked. “I need to learn how to teach defense.”

Imagine that.

Yaklich had done his homework. He had answers. The Wolverines had to get better defending ball-screens. “Basketball and the way it’s played right now, if you’re not a good ball-screen defensive team you’ve got no chance,” he said. Then, Michigan needed to get their bigs to be “active and committed” rebounders. And finally, the Wolverines had to find a way to convince their perimeter players to be better applying ball pressure.

The proof is in the pudding.

A season ago, Michigan finished in the 43rd-percentile in ball-screen defense, according to Synergy, a company that logs per-possession data for basketball. This year, they rank in the 92nd-percentile. Last season, the Wolverines were 212th in defensive rebounding percentage. This year, they rank 28th. Mo Wagner went from posting a defensive rebounding rate of 15.9 to one of 25.6, which ranks 33rd nationally. Their defensive effective field goal percentage went from 226th in the country last yer to 53rd this year.

Those numbers don’t happen by accident.

And if you ask anyone around the Michigan program, they’ll tell you the credit for instilling change in the defensive mindset of the program doesn’t just belong to Yaklich.

Zavier Simpson has played just as big of a role.

It started the first day that Yaklich stepped foot on the practice floor with his new team.

“When I first walked into the gym, the first drill ever was ‘1, 2, 3 let’s hit the floor, we’re going to do some slides.’ In August,” Yaklich said, hinting at something that anyone that has played basketball at any level knows: Conditioning drills are never fun, and defensive slides — in August! — are the worst. “And Zavier was the guy right in front, ‘I got you coach Luke.'”

That set the tone for the entire program, and it had as much to do with Simpson’s refusal to give anyone a pass for anything less than a stop defensively, and not just in games. Simpson — who is noted for his ability as a trash-talker — holds his teammates accountable when they don’t do their job. Don’t get beat off the dribble. Don’t miss an assignment or a rotation. And whatever you do, don’t let him see someone on the scout team score on you in practice.

Zavier Simpson (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

It works because Simpson’s teammates have seen him put in the work every game, every practice, all the way back to Yaklich’s first day on the court way back in August. They’ve seen him do it despite the fact that he lost the starting point guard job for a stretch in the middle of the season. Simpson was, technically-speaking, recruited over this offseason. The point guard role is so incredibly important to what Beilein wants to do offensively, and after Simpson’s freshman season didn’t quite go as well as planned, the Michigan staff brought in Jaaron Simmons, a grad transfer from Ohio, in an effort to shore up their point guard play.

Simpson went on to win — and then lose — the starting point guard role because, as Beilein put it, “he wasn’t making the extra pass. He wasn’t seeing the open man. He was fouling every time he got in there.” Through it all, Simpson never stopped jabbering. He never stopped working. He never stopped defending. He never stopped doing what the coaching staff wanted him to do.

Beilein could have brought in Gregg Popovich to coach his defense, if the players don’t listen, if they don’t buy-in, it won’t matter. And Simpson, even through his individual struggles, set a tone that helped to changed the culture of Michigan basketball. It changed the way the program and the players identify themselves.

“It’s grown into something where the entire team and our entire staff has taken ownership of being a good defensive team,” Yaklich said. “Zavier simply has a will that will not allow him to get outcompeted every day, out-toughed. He just keeps hammering away every single day. He earned the right to be the starting point guard.”

Never was that more evident than this weekend in New York City.

Simpson played 140 minutes over the course of four games in four days, and he did the heavy-lifting in keeping four terrific point guards — Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, Nebraska’s Glynn Watson, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards — from getting into any kind of a rhythm. They combined to shoot 14-for-52 (27 percent) from the floor and 7-for-26 (27 percent) from three while averaging just 11.0 points.

“This guy hangs his hat on defense,” Beilein said. “He’s stubborn. He wants to play every minute. He doesn’t want to rest. He’s just wore me out so much with how hard he plays.”

“Everybody looks at him playing hard out in front of them, guarding every point guard, going through dozens of ball screens every game, and he’s still talking and wants more,” Yaklich added. “That spreads like wildfire in our group.”

The end result is another Big Ten tournament, one built on the back of a defensive effort as impressive as any we’ve ever seen from a team coached by Beilein. The payoff will be a week off as they wait to find out who, and where, they will be playing in March. The staff is not worried about getting rusty.

“At this point, our guys know what we need to do,” Yaklich said. “It’s now about sharpening the knife.”

Wake Forest guard Keyshawn Woods to transfer or go pro after graduation

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Wake Forest will be down a key player next season as the school announced that guard Keyshawn Woods will either transfer or go pro after graduation.

The 6-foot-3 Woods was the team’s second-leading scorer this season as he put up 11.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. Woods shot 43 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point range for the 2017-18 campaign.

Also a key member of last season’s NCAA tournament team for the Demon Deacons, Woods transferred to Wake Forest after spending his first season at Charlotte.

“I appreciate the opportunity that Coach Manning gave me to be a part of this program and to graduate from this great university,” said Woods in the release. “I am proud that I was able to help the coaches change the culture of the program and build a foundation for the future.”

The loss of Woods won’t be easy for Wake Forest, but the team is scheduled to return some talented guards like Bryant Crawford and Brandon Childress next season. Incoming freshmen like Jaime Lewis and Sharone Wright Jr. are also signed to add to the perimeter depth.

David Padgett not retained as Louisville coach

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Louisville announced on Wednesday afternoon that interim head coach David Padgett would not be retained.

Padgett, who is 32 years old, stepped in and took the program over in the wake of a scandal that cost Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino his job.

“We all owe a great debt of gratitude to David for his leadership and poise this season,” said U of L Interim Director of Athletics Vince Tyra. “He took over during incredible circumstances, has handled himself respectfully throughout the season and I believe he has a bright future in coaching. We expect to determine a new head coach in a short period to build upon the great basketball tradition of this university.”

Pitino was fired because an FBI complaint contained an allegation that he and his staff had arranged for a $100,000 payment to be funneled to Brian Bowen from Adidas.

In his one season with the Cardinals, Padgett went 22-14 and reached the quarterfinals of the NIT.

Louisville will now conduct a search for their next head coach, and current Xavier coach Chris Mack has long been considered the favorite to take that job.

Kansas State’s injured star hoping to play Thursday

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One of the most surprising parts about Kansas State’s run to the Sweet 16 is that they have done it without the services of their leading scorer, Dean Wade.

Wade injured his foot prior to the Big 12 tournament loss to Kansas. He did not play in that game or in either of Kansas State’s first two tournament games, but it is looking more and more like he’ll be on the floor on Thursday night when they play Kentucky.

“I don’t play percentages very well, but I’m feeling good,” Wade said, via SEC Country. “I’m very positive about it. It’s getting better every day and today I felt great out there, doing a little more than usual. It felt good.”

Wade averaged 16.5 points per game, but the big question is going to be whether or not he is actually healthy when he takes the court. Just because he’s on the floor doesn’t mean he’s at 100 percent.

“Really just trying to get it out of my mind that it’s not hurt,” Wade said. “Just more of a mental thing, just getting out there and running around. I think I got moved past that and it’s feeling better.”

Arizona’s Sean Miller: ‘I am not a candidate’ at Pitt

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With speculation mounting about who Pitt will hire to replace Kevin Stallings as their new head coach, current Arizona head coach Sean Miller released a statement saying that he is not in the running to fill the opening.

“I am not a candidate for the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball head coaching vacancy. I wish them well in their search for a new coach,” the statement read.

Miller is a native of Pittsburgh and an alumni of the school — he’s the guy that had the assist on Jerome Lane’s famous dunk — and with the issues that are currently swirling around him and the Arizona program, there was speculation that he was looking for an escape plan.

Maybe he wasn’t.

Maybe he was and the Pitt administration decided they couldn’t risk hiring someone who had an assistant coach arrested in the FBI’s sweep of college basketball and who himself may be on wiretaps talking about who knows what. Releasing this statement would then be a way for him to save face and say he was never interested.

And then maybe there’s option No. 3: Pitt has won the Dan Hurley sweepstakes.

As it stands, both the Panthers and UConn are in the process of chasing after the Rhode Island head coach, and it’s not uncommon in coaching searches for a coach to announce that he is not a candidate for the job after the job decides they want someone else. Call it a professional courtesy.

But that’s neither here nor there.

What we do know now is that Sean Miller will not be the next head coach at Pitt.

Report: Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson suffers another fracture in foot

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Bonzie Colson rushed back from a broken foot to try and help his Notre Dame team get into the NCAA tournament this season.

They were bumped out of the field when Davidson upset Rhode Island and earned the Atlantic 10’s third bid to the league tournament. The Fighting Irish were NIT bound, and in their second round loss to Penn State late last week, Colson reinjured the left foot that held him out of action for eight weeks.

On Wednesday, Yahoo reported that Colson suffered another fracture in the foot.

“I’m sitting there and he’s limping off and I’m going, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” coach Mike Brey said after the game. “Everything we’ve been through? I thought we were out of the woods with him.”

There was a poignant moment at the end of the game.

Colson’s injury came during the third quarter. He returned to the bench at Purcell Pavilion with ice on his foot after going into the locker room. With 30 seconds left and a loss imminent, Colson walked right past Mike Brey, said “I’m going in”, and finished his college career on the court.

Colson is a potential second round pick. He was an all-american last year and a preseason selection this year. He was averaging 19.7 points, 10.2 boards and 2.2 blocks when he was injured.