WICHITA, Kan. — Don Brown isn’t the only decorated defensive coordinator on Michigan’s campus.
Luke Yaklich rightly can claim the same designation.
The 41-year-old was a history teacher and varsity basketball coach five years ago. Now, he’s the architect of a top-five defense. The Wolverines rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, and it could be their ticket to the Final Four.
The next challenge comes Saturday night, when No. 3 seed Michigan tries to slow sixth-seeded Houston and its high-octane offense led by Rob Gray.
Late Thursday and early Friday morning, UM’s tenacious pack line defense was on full display. Montana entered the NCAA tournament as a top-50 offensive team, shooting 47.1 percent from the field. The Grizzlies connected on a mere 32 percent of their shots against the Wolverines, making seven field goals in the second half and missing 12 consecutive at one point.
“Luke’s been very impactful,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Luke’s got a great strong voice. He sends me an email every day, a whole page of defensive things he wants us to think about. He’s done a really great job of keeping me focused on talking about defense and implementing things in practice.”
Before this season, Beilein’s teams always were defined by their offense. Never before had they been in the top 35 in adjusted defensive efficiency, and that side of the ball was the weak link in recent seasons. The door has been completely knocked down and disassembled in 2017-18.
With Yaklich barking orders and point guard Zavier Simpson playing like a pitbull, Michigan’s defense has contained some serious bite. Simpson’s played 161 minutes in the past five games, limiting his man to 17-of-61 shooting (27.8 percent).
“I’m like the middle linebacker of the defense,” said Simpson, a Lima Senior graduate. “I just want to come in and play defense. My energy is contagious.”
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By every metric, Michigan has improved across the board defensively this season — field-goal percentage defense, ball-screen defense, defensive rebounding percentage, and on and on.
All it would have taken for Michigan to miss out on Yaklich’s services is Ohio State not firing Thad Matta. Once that happened, it set off a furious chain of events. Chris Holtmann was hired by the Buckeyes, LaVall Jordan was hired by Butler, Jordan hired Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer, Wisconsin-Milwaukee hired Northwestern assistant Pat Baldwin to replace Jordan, and Chris Collins hired Michigan assistant Billy Donlon to replace Baldwin. Thus, Michigan had two vacancies.
One was filled by Yaklich, the other by DeAndre Haynes. Both were plucked from Illinois State.
“It’s a situation where the right time, right place, and right situation came,” Yaklich said. “It’s one of those things where you never know what opportunity is gonna happen for you. But you’re prepared if it ever does. All the events that led to me getting to Michigan, it’s surreal.”
As a defensive maestro at the high school level, Yaklich lived a comfortable life at La Salle-Peru High School, Sterling High School, and Joliet West High School, all three in his native Illinois. The truth is, Yaklich loved being a history teacher. He enjoyed being in the classroom every day teaching kids. He liked running a high school basketball program. Coaching in college was put on the backburner.
When Illinois State coach Dan Muller called in 2013, Yaklich listened. He then held a family meeting, the most important summit he convened. The consensus from his wife and kids was support. The same gathering and decision occurred last summer when Beilein inquired.
“Thankfully, I have a family that supports the job that we have,” Yaklich said.
His team — and boss — is firmly in Yaklich’s corner when it comes to supporting his defensive initiatives.
He points to the UCLA and Texas games as turning points. Michigan stormed back from 15 down in the second half against the Bruins, and a defensive switch was flipped for Simpson. He forced UCLA’s talented point guard Aaron Holiday into five turnovers in the final 10 minutes. Three nights later, the Wolverines won an ugly 59-52 game at Texas.
“The key thing was we embraced defense from Day 1, and we just kept sharpening the blade as the year went on,” Yaklich said. “You have to win some games with your defense to have the real buy-in with your players. There were a couple games throughout the year that we didn’t make shots and still won the game. It just kind of grew the roots so to speak of our defense. Our guys have been unbelievable with the preparation, execution, and effort on a day-to-day basis.”
In late November, Michigan traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., for a date with the North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC scored 51 points in the first half and shot 54.8 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from 3-point range in an 86-71 rout.
The calendar says four months have passed. For Michigan, it feels like four years.
“I think this team may be known for how they've grown defensively all year long,” Beilein said. “North Carolina scored 51 points in the first half. Since that day, we haven’t won them all, but we’ve really grown defensively.”
It’s ancient history, just like Yaklich’s high school teaching career.
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