Everything came together for the Michigan men’s basketball team during its drive to the Big Ten Tournament championship at Madison Square Garden.
After surviving an early scare and beating Iowa, 77-71, in overtime, the Wolverines whipped Nebraska, 77-58; Michigan State, 75-64; and Purdue, 75-66, en route to the title. That extends the team’s winning streak to nine games and most likely improves its stock – perhaps as a No. 3 or even a No. 2 seed – with Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament on the horizon.
His humility will prevent it, but if first-year Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich – who spent three seasons as the head coach for the Joliet Township combined program and three seasons as head coach at Joliet West – were to take a bow, it would be apropos. Wolverines coach John Beilein has made it a point in recent interviews to praise Yaklich’s work as his defensive architect.
Yaklich was handed responsibility for the defense from the day Beilein hired him last summer after Yaklich spent four seasons working heavily on the defensive end under Dan Muller at Illinois State. The results are evident. Michigan (28-7 overall, 13-5 in the Big Ten regular season) is ninth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 63.5 points per game, and is sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency.
“Throughout the interview process, what Coach Beilein said he was looking for was a defensive voice at practice,” Yaklich said Monday. “Coach has given me a lot of freedom to work at it, determine how to put the players in the best positions to succeed on the floor.
“The players bought into what we wanted them to do to become a great defensive team. But it isn’t only that. The entire coaching staff wants us to be the best we can be at both ends of the floor.”
One player who bought into defense from the beginning is sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. He held his opposite numbers to 11-for-36 shooting in the Big Ten Tournament. But the Wolverines are nothing if not the epitome of a team working together.
“The best things we have done is a direct reflection of how Coach Beilein takes on the entire season,” Yaklich said. “Every single day, he tries to improve the team and the players’ individual skills, and he allows us [assistants] to keep chopping away at it.”
TURNING THE CORNER
Yaklich said it was in December when the Wolverines began to look like the team they could become.
“When we beat UCLA at home [78-69 in overtime Dec. 9] and followed that up beating Texas on the road [59-52 Dec. 12], that shed light on the team we can be, a good defensive team,” he said. “Slowly over the course of the year in the Big Ten, we’ve been able to adapt. We been able to work together through our mistakes.
“The best word for it is we’ve become connected. We have a team with true grit and toughness. After the loss at Northwestern [61-52 Feb. 6], we have won nine in a row.”
Yaklich said playing a Big Ten schedule has prepared the Wolverines for the NCAA Tournament. But that does not mean they are not going to continue working hard.
“The Big Ten has different styles and lots of good players,” he said. “Sometimes you play against a great 1 [point guard], then the next night a great post player and then a great 3 or 4 [shooting forward or power forward].
“The nature of our nonconference schedule and conference schedule challenges us in our schemes and what each individual has to do in each scheme. We hope those experiences have led us to be a team that now is well polished, but by no means comfortable.”
AN AMAZING YEAR
The way the Wolverines are playing, if you do not feel the 10- or 11-day layoff between the end of the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tourney will hurt them, you may consider them a candidate to go a long way when you fill out your NCAA bracket next week.
In the middle of the hoopla in Ann Arbor, there’s Luke Yaklich.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “If you would have told me a year ago that I would have the opportunities I have had in the next 12 months, I would have had to shake my head and say, ‘And how is that going to happen?’ But I have had unbelievable coaches and mentors in my life who have required me to grow every day. My family, too, has supported me every day.”
Yaklich’s son Griffin is a sophomore at Saline High School outside Ann Arbor. He was the starting varsity point guard this season.
“Griffin is doing great,” Yaklich said. “He has grown a lot physically and mentally. His team is right around .500 and he is averaging about 12 to 14 points.”
Besides being at practice virtually every day, Yaklich’s responsibilities at Michigan include recruiting.
“We have signed a really good class for 2018,” he said. “It’s top 10 or top 15 defending on what you like to read. We get out to see kids for 2019 and 2020 when we can. I’ve been to Chicago a couple times and to different parts of Illinois as well.”
Still, thanks to Beilein, he has had the opportunity to see many of Griffin’s games.
“Coach Beilein is great about that stuff,” Yaklich said. “He’s the first guy who says to make sure you get to your son’s game.”
Before we ended our conversation, Yaklich had one more topic to mention.
“Joliet Central is in the sectional, I see. I wish them well. I hope they win it,” he said. “Larry [Thompson, who coached at Lockport and against Yaklich during Yaklich’s years in Joliet] is such a great coach. It sounds like that whole sectional should really be good.”
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.