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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.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.