There have been times when Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich senses that his unbridled enthusiasm for defensive-minded basketball falls on deaf ears.
No matter how much the metrics point to how much defense — Yaklich’s reason for being in Ann Arbor — has meant to the Wolverines’ success in his two seasons on Coach John Beilein’s staff, Yaklich gets it. He has coached long enough to realize there are other skills players would rather focus on than hear him rattle on about limiting an opponent’s ability to score.
But this has always been the Yaklich way. And now, with Michigan back in the Sweet 16 and preparing to play like-minded Texas Tech in a West Region semifinal, defense has become the way of the Wolverines. The second-seeded Wolverines and No. 3 seed Red Raiders enter Thursday night’s matchup in Anaheim, Calif., as the nation’s top two defensive teams, according to KenPom.com .
“I think that’s where it starts with me,” Yaklich said this week. “I love defense and I let that show. I’m able to be myself and so that passion I have for defense, I’m able to exhibit that and be myself every day.”
The ability to get players to buy in remains at the core of his abilities. His power of persuasion has matured throughout his years of coaching — first at the high school level, then in four years as an assistant at his alma mater, Illinois State, and now at Michigan. But Yaklich’s skills were truly developed in his 15 years as a high school teacher.
“A 9 a.m. American history class is not the most exciting thing for 80 percent or more of high school students,” Yaklich said. “You just had to have people get excited, and to get people excited, you have to have energy and passion yourself.”
Yaklich has since transferred that energy to Michigan’s bulldog perimeter defenders, Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews, who, along with sophomore center Jon Teske, have shaped Michigan’s tenacity. The Wolverines rank No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (58.2 points per game), and they limited each of their first two tournament opponents, Montana and Florida, to under 35 percent shooting.
Yaklich combines his interpersonal skills with the need for personal accountability. His attention to defensive detail plays in direct contrast to Beilein, who is one of the nation’s top offensive masterminds and has led the Wolverines to the Sweet 16 five times and the championship game twice since 2013. Yet Beilien admitted before hiring Yaklich that he needed someone who would take a different approach to Michigan’s game plan.
Yaklich’s presence has added a wrinkle — one his players have fully digested, first in summer pickup games and practice before transitioning knowledge to the moments that mattered most.
“Nobody wanted to be the guy that was embarrassed and talked about day after day,” Matthews said this past weekend. “That’s what started us locking up.”
Michigan was never ranked higher than 37th nationally in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency metric in Beilein’s 10 seasons before hiring Yaklich. Since, the Wolverines ranked third last season, when they advanced to the national championship game, and second this season.
Yaklich’s Michigan experience has been one built around experimentation and a willingness to give and take. Beilein wasn’t initially completely sold on whether the 42-year-old was right for the job. But after speaking with Dan Muller, Yaklich’s former boss at Illinois State, and understanding what Yaklich did best, Beilein’s tune changed.
“We got much more than I expected,” Beilein told the Chicago Tribune. “He is a force.”
Although Beilein hasn’t implemented all of Yaklich’s ideas, that hasn’t stopped Michigan’s minister of defense from constantly searching. He frequently communicates via email and text messages to introduce different defensive tactics, video clips he picks up on Twitter and motivational messages that will inspire players to contribute even more to team success.
Yaklich knows that because each player learns differently, each must be coached in a unique way. He has made an effort to determine what makes each of his players tick and then stays true to himself to reach players where they are.
“Luke is just really good with people,” Muller said. “He’s corny as can be — he’s a total cornball — but it’s genuine and he’s very comfortable with who he is.”
Yaklich admits his Michigan players have become accustomed to his business approach, not to mention his “sometimes quirky dad-joke” brand of humor. But he realizes that, corny or not, if he is going to continue to get the most out of each player, they must see Yaklich for who he really is.
“With me, there’s always been a little bit of a mind-set that you have to out-crazy kids,” Yaklich said. “When you’re completely comfortable with who you are, people appreciate that. Kids can see when you’re really not into something, but you’re trying to pretend to be. You can’t fool them whether you’re in front of 30 kids in a U.S. history class or you’re around 15 kids at the end of practice. You have to be genuine and be yourself.”