The architect of Michigan’s new identity
Zavier Simpson had heard Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon’s name a few too many times that week.
Resting against the wall outside the locker room of the emptied Carver-Hawkeye Arena following Michigan’s 75-68 win over Iowa, Simpson made that abundantly clear.
“Defense is a pride thing in my opinion,” Simpson said with a straight stare and a stern tone. “I knew Bohannon was good. The coaches love Bohannon, to the point where it started to become annoying. … Bohannon, Bohannon, Bohannon.”
At the 16 minute mark, he heard the voice again: “Bohannon.”
At the 18-minute mark, “Bohannon.”
The 35 minute mark? “Bohannon.”
But defense being a source of vehement pride is nothing new for Simpson. Teammates frequently use the word “dog” as their endearing way to describe him. That mindset alone has often been his path to playing time, even when his offensive production sputters. He’ll grab any opportunity he can get to tell you he takes every defensive matchup personally, and that you should too.
“I felt like it’s a disease,” Simpson said, “so it can spread.”
That bird in his ear? The one that drove Simpson to near insanity on a frigid January night in rural Iowa? The one that compelled him to shut down Jordan Bohannon and then therapeutically grumble his name into submission afterward? That was Luke Yaklich.
Oh, it’s spread all right. Like wildfire.
When Yaklich approached Joliet West High athletic director Steven Millsaps about a collegiate coaching offer in 2013, Millsaps wasn’t surprised.
“Luke’s such a student of the game,” Millsaps said in a phone interview last week. “I remember clear as day, when he was talking to me, we came off a pretty good season when he came to me and talked to me about he got offered to go be at Illinois State.
“He was very unsure — obviously that’s a big jump.”
Yaklich was comfortable at Joliet West. He had built a successful basketball team and was thriving as a history teacher and content specialist, overseeing many of his peers on staff and implementing a program called “Teach Like a Champion.” His family was a staple in the Joliet community, with his son Griffin even emerging into a talented young basketball player himself.
“Teaching is a pretty good gig,” Millsaps said. “We all think we’re going to be in our positions the entire time. Then opportunity and life takes you in other places.”
For Yaklich, life took him to Illinois State, a program that was 21-33 in conference play the three years prior and, more pertinent to Yaklich, a middling defensive team even in its better seasons. Yaklich was a coach who ran a man-to-man scheme, heading off to a program that ran a 2-3 zone.
“You have to design a system that best allows your players to be successful given their personal strengths as defensive players,” Yaklich said recently. “You are looking at your opponent’s strengths, your own player’s strengths and sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.”
He took a group of parts at Illinois State and undeniably made them a greater whole, branding a hard-nosed defensive identity with a roster that seemed hardly conducive for such. Last season the Redbirds had only one player taller than 6-foot-9, and he played just 12 games.
In his four seasons at Illinois State, Yaklich led a resurgent Redbirds defense, capping off his tenure with an adjusted defensive efficiency that ranked 19th in the country last season.
This offseason, when Michigan coach John Beilein was left scrambling to fill two assistant coach positions — including Billy Donlon, his defensive confidant — he sought assertiveness. He wanted a defensive voice that could command a gym in one moment, and calmly instruct an individual player in the next.
Yaklich was eager and qualified to oblige.
And he knew both he and Beilein — both former teachers — shared a philosophical wavelength in that regard.
But Yaklich wasn’t going to passively wait out the exhaustive hiring process. He wanted to take matters into his own hands.
“We didn’t know each other,” Yaklich said. “So one of the things (Beilein) wanted to know, he used to always say, ‘Do you have that voice? Do you have command?’ ”
Yaklich instructed a video staff member at Illinois State to send him clips from practice showing him in action, which he then relayed to Beilein. Player film is one thing. This was coaching film. Beilein’s skepticism vanished shortly after.
“He goes, ‘Is that how you are all the time?’ ” Yaklich recalled. “It was a great line. I said, ‘Yes, Coach. I’m comfortable between the lines and comfortable teaching.’ … I knew when he asked me that question, I said, ‘Man, if that’s the hangup, I think I’ll be able to make a good impression there in the first couple days.’ ”
Yaklich was hired last August, along with another Illinois State assistant, Deandre Haynes. Yaklich instantly immersed himself in tape from previous seasons. By the time the team’s media day rolled around, he was able to discuss, in length, the team’s defensive strengths and weaknesses, how he hoped to deploy individual players and tangible goals for the defense he had already begun build.
In practice, his entire focus was on the defensive side of the ball, allowing Beilein the freedom to work with individual players.
“(Defense is) all he thinks about,” Beilein said on Feb. 2, the day before the Wolverines played Minnesota. “That’s really good for our coaching staff. As a head coach you’ve got to think of everything, but when I’ve got a guy who doesn’t care what we’re doing offensively — he does care, but he (doesn’t) worry about that — keeps me on point toward what we have to do. … We do almost everything he suggests.”
Just 24 hours later, Yaklich would make one his boldest suggestions of the season.
The Wolverines trailed the Golden Gophers 50-40 with 11 minutes left, as Minnesota guards Nate Mason and Isaiah Washington made Crisler Center their personal playground. Yaklich implored Beilein to unleash a previously unused zone. It was a zone Beilein said they practiced “every other day,” but had yet to use. In the heat of the moment, with an upset loss staring them in the face, Yaklich decided the time was right.
Minnesota went over three minutes before scoring next, allowing a sluggish Michigan offense to regain its footing. Over the next eight minutes, the Wolverines strung together a 17-6 run, capturing the lead. They finished the game in the zone, pulling out a 76-73 win in overtime.
“That was Luke Yaklich all the way,” Beilein said after the game.
Before Yaklich arrived, Michigan had never finished higher than 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency in the Beilein era. This year the Wolverines are 25th.
They didn’t do it by reinventing the wheel, either. Yaklich came in wanting to rebound at an elite rate and contest every shot.
“You can’t emphasize everything defensively, you have to hang your hat on one or two things,” Yaklich said. “You have to be able to guard the dribble and rebound the first shot. I think those two things take you a long way in February and March.”
Check and check.
Yaklich inherited a historically poor rebounding program — and a frontcourt with plenty of rebounding deficiencies. He aimed to have a defensive rebounding percentage over 75 percent. The team’s defensive rebounding percentage currently sits 13th nationally at 78.8 percent. The previous best in the Beilein era was 2015, when the Wolverines finished 49th nationally at 75.6 percent.
Michigan is also allowing just 63.7 points per game, the fewest the Wolverines have averaged since the 2012-2013 national runner-up, when the shot clock was 35 seconds.
The prudent defensive adjustment against Minnesota was “Luke Yaklich all the way.” And maybe this is all Luke Yaklich. Maybe this is the emergence of a future high-end head coach. Maybe — just maybe — Beilein stumbled upon one of the pre-eminent defensive minds in the small town of Normal, Illinois.
Yaklich cracks a wry smile, breaking through his even-keeled demeananor when he hears the story about Simpson and Bohannon. He can’t help himself.
“X is great,” he says, before jolting back into character, diving into a psychological breakdown of his defensive mentality. Yaklich doesn’t say whether the Bohannon saturation was an intentional motivational tactic. He doesn’t have to.
“(Simpson) brings it each and every night, and I’m glad he takes some of those challenges from the coaching staff personally.”
Simpson is a player engineered to play for Yaklich. But while there’s a degree of predictability in a close relationship between the most avid defensive competitor and the de facto “defensive coordinator,” the rest of the team came into the season with defensive questions littering the roster.
Yaklich’s biggest accomplishment doesn’t rest in an uber-motivated Simpson, but in a team-wide attitude shift. Michigan has had elite defenders under Beilein — D.J. Wilson, Jordan Morgan and Zack Novak spring to mind.
But it’s not simply a rarity for a Beilein-led Michigan squad to have an elite team defense. It has never had an elite team defense.
“We were either pretty good offensively or bad in both (offense and defense),” said former Michigan basketball player Anthony Wright in a phone interview. Wright played under Beilein from 2007-2010.
“Before, Beilein would always say, ‘Hey, look, you may have a mismatch when we have to guard bigger guys, but they’re going to have to guard you, too.’ That was the mindset.”
That transformation extends far beyond some overhaul of the previous system or grand change in scheme. This has been about a renewed emphasis and hyperfocus, not exhaustive change.
For the players, the attitude comes with a dose of direspect and a modicum of talent compensation.
“We may not have the same talent offensively as years past,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman after a 58-47 win over Northwestern Jan. 29. “But we’re still a good team. We’re just playing to our strength — we have a lot of athletic guys that can play defense. So we just play to our strength.”
The sky is orange. Water is dry. Michigan’s defense is its strength.
“Coach Yaklich was really on that from the beginning of the year, ‘We’ve got to play defense, we’re not going to win games if we don’t play defense,’ ” said freshman guard Jordan Poole. “But then the players started buying in, saying, ‘All right, he’s right, but we’re the ones playing out there so we’re the only ones that can really make a difference about this.’ ”
It made a difference in a stifling performance in a 59-52 win at Texas, in the marquee non-conference win of the season. It made a difference in a 58-47 rockfight against Northwestern at home. It made a difference in the one-point victory over Maryland. It has made a difference all season on one of the worst offensive squads of the Beilein era.
Twenty-seven games in — 20 wins later — this is no longer a mirage. It’s February now. This is who the Wolverines are.
“I think we have the right personnel, the right mentality (defensively). … That’s the way we practice, that’s the way we play,” said junior center Moritz Wagner before pausing to consider the peculiarity of what he — a team captain and the voice of the team — said next.
“It’s kind of our identity.”