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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”