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.”

Gardner, No. 3 Virginia rally for 70-68 win at Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tony Bennett’s team passed all its tests in the opening month of the season.

Jayden Gardner made a go-ahead jumper with 39.9 seconds left and blocked Jett Howard’s 3-point shot just before the buzzer, allowing No. 3 Virginia to stay undefeated with a 70-68 win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (6-0) won their first true road game against a team that was ranked in the first two polls this season, a little more than a week after beating then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois in Las Vegas.

“It got pretty intense in here,” Bennett said.

Virginia trailed by 11 points at halftime, rallied to go ahead with 7:25 left and built a five-point lead that didn’t last.

The Wolverines (5-2) went ahead 66-65 at the 1:42 mark when Hunter Dickinson made one of two free throws.

Michigan missed chances to stay or go ahead when Dickinson missed a hook shot with 1:01 to go and Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn turned the ball over with 16 seconds left.

“Hunter has made that running hook before,” coach Juwan Howard said. “The turnover, yes, down the stretch, it hurt, but overall that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.

“We could’ve easily put our heads down when they came out in the second half and made a run.”

Reece Beekman, who finished with 18 points, stepped in front of Llewellyn’s pass in the final minute and made one of two free throws.

Virginia’s Armaan Franklin missed two free throws with 5.7 seconds left, giving Michigan a chance to extend or win the game. Howard took a contested shot beyond the 3-point arc on the right wing – near his father, Michigan’s coach – and Gardner came up with the block against the freshman guard while Wolverines coaches and players screamed for a foul call.

It appeared that Gardner got all ball on the block.

Kihei Clark scored 16 points, Gardner had 12, Kadin Shedrick fouled out with 12 points and Ben Vander Plas added 10 for the balanced Cavaliers.

“You need different guys, and that’s what it takes, to make plays offensively and defensively,” Bennett said.

Dickinson scored 23 points, Jett Howard had 11 of his 15 in the first half and Kobe Bufkin added 11 points for Michigan.

“Jett is a gamer, he’s going to compete no matter what,” Juwan Howard said. “He’s loved basketball since he was a little baby boy.

“He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”

The Wolverines started slowly, trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, before Howard scored eight points to lead a 13-2 run. Michigan led 45-34 at halftime when Bufkin made a layup after a steal.

“We can’t be sloppy like that on the defensive end, but we did battle hard in the second half,” Bennett said.

Vander Plas scored nine points during an 11-2 run that put Virginia ahead 65-60. The Cavaliers then went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket before Gardner’s big shot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Virginia: The Cavaliers have their highest ranking since the 2018-19 season – which ended with a national title – and are off to their best start since being 7-0 three years ago. The team continues to honor the memory of three football players who were fatally shot on campus earlier this month, wearing warmup jerseys with their names.

Michigan: Juwan Howard’s team matched up well in its first game against a ranked opponent this season.

“When we come out with the effort like we did today for 40 minutes, I love our chances against any college team in the country,” he said.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts Florida State (1-7) on Saturday.

Michigan: Plays No. 19 Kentucky (5-2) on Sunday in London.

Marquette’s defense overwhelms No. 6 Baylor in 96-70 win

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MILWAUKEE – Marquette has developed a habit under Shaka Smart of saving its top performances for the best opponents on its schedule.

Olivier-Maxence Prosper scored 24 points and Marquette capitalized on a dominant start from its defense to roll past No. 6 Baylor 96-70 on Tuesday night in the Big 12-Big East Battle. This was the highest-ranked team Marquette (6-2) has beaten under Smart and the Golden Eagles improved to to 7-6 against AP Top 25 squads in his tenure.

“Most of the time against these great teams, they don’t have us winning that game,” said David Joplin, who scored 19 points. “We just come out, we want to go out and prove everybody wrong. And that feeling, that chip makes us play so much better.”

Marquette nearly produced its most lopsided victory against a Top 25 team. The Golden Eagles trounced No. 16 Providence 88-56 on Jan. 4 in Smart’s debut season.

“When you go into a game and the game is bigger in the minds of your players than anything else, to me that’s the best recipe for winning,” Smart said. “It should be that way all the time, but human nature sometimes messes with that.”

Marquette’s defense embarrassed a highly regarded Baylor backcourt.

The Golden Eagles raced to a 51-25 halftime lead thanks to a 24-0 edge in points off turnovers. Baylor (5-2) already had a season-high 16 turnovers by halftime.

Baylor entered Tuesday ranked third among Division I teams in assist-turnover margin. The Bears had 20 turnovers and 12 assists against Marquette.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Credit the crowd. Credit them for building momentum. Credit Shaka for having them prepared and how hard they played. At the end of the day, we fed to the fire by turning it over and making some uncharacteristic mistakes.”

Prosper scored 10 points and sank two 3-pointers during a 23-2 run that turned an early 7-2 deficit into a 25-9 advantage. Chase Ross capped the spurt by getting a steal and throwing down a left-handed dunk.

Baylor never cut Marquette’s lead below 22 points in the second half.

Kam Jones had 20 points as Marquette shot 58.3% overall to win its third straight. The Golden Eagles shot 12 of 25 from 3-point range, with Jones going 4 of 7 and Prosper and Joplin each going 3 of 4.

Baylor’s LJ Cryer had 17 of his 19 points, in the second half. Adam Flagler had 16 and Keyonte George added 12 for the Bears.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears shot 48.2% (27 of 56) but had no answers for Marquette’s defense and dug too deep a hole. Baylor rallied from a 25-deficit to force overtime in an NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina last season, but the Bears never mounted any kind of comeback Tuesday.

Marquette: After losing to Purdue and Mississippi State earlier this season, the Golden Eagles delivered the kind of performance that showed they’re capable of beating anyone. Marquette will try to prove that again when it hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.

BIG 12 VS. BIG EAST

The Big 12-Big East Battle started Tuesday and runs through Sunday. Last season’s Big 12-Big East Battle ended in a 5-5 tie.

HONORING THOMPSON

Marquette came out of its locker room wearing shirts with No. 24 to honor George Thompson, who died in June of complications from diabetes. Thompson played for Marquette from 1967-69, and he was the school’s career scoring leader for 40 years.

Tuesday would have been Thompson’s 75th birthday. A No. 24 banner with Thompson’s name hangs from the Fiserv Forum rafters.

“I really felt like we needed to win tonight to honor George,” Smart said. “If you make it George Thompson Night, you couldn’t lose.”

UP NEXT

Baylor: Faces No. 14 Gonzaga on Friday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Marquette: Hosts Wisconsin on Saturday.

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.