How to prepare for a championship in 24 hours
CHICAGO — When DeAndre Haynes was asked how he wanted to approach Sunday’s Big Ten championship game, the Michigan assistant coach fell back on a litany of attention-deflecting clichés.
Standing in the middle of the Wolverines’ locker room after their semi-final win over Minnesota, away from the hordes of cameras surrounding the team’s biggest stars, Haynes told reporters that Michigan is “just worrying about ourselves.”
“We ain’t worried about nothing else but playing Michigan basketball,” he said.
Sitting on a folding chair just steps behind him, assistant coach Saddi Washington stared intently at his MacBook, providing quite the evidence to the contrary. On his screen, Washington was already dissecting film of Michigan State, the Wolverines’ opponent on Sunday. Around him were three assistants, each dressed in blue polos, each breaking down something different about the Spartans.
When I walked over, all lowered their laptops in unison. This is not a public operation. Washington and assistant coach Luke Yaklich will take me through their scouting process, but neither dares to divulge a single detail about Michigan State.
A few hours earlier, the two sat in the second row of the United Center’s courtside media section, watching as the Spartans stormed out to an early lead over Wisconsin and never looked back in a 67-55 win.
In the Michigan locker room, players expressed their excitement at getting a third shot at their in-state rival after falling in Ann Arbor last month and squandering a shot at the Big Ten regular season title in East Lansing last weekend. For Yaklich and Washington, the opponent makes their job easier — getting the team focused in film sessions won’t be a challenge with those losses so fresh in their memory.
“This game in particular, it’s an easy game for our guys to be up for,” Washington said. “At this point, it’s just a matter of who’s gonna execute at a higher level than their opponent. Hopefully, third time will be a charm for us.”
To the casual onlooker, Michigan’s scouting process may have appeared to be starting when Yaklich and Washington took their seats just before tip-off between Michigan State and the Badgers. But with less than 24 hours between the final buzzer sounding on the Wolverines’ 76-49 demolition of Minnesota and tip-off of the championship game, such a short window would have been woefully insufficient.
“You have to have great habits all year long,” Yakich said, “so that when you are scouting and you’re looking for those little things, your team can adjust quickly in a hotel lobby or a hotel barroom.”
This process — which reaches a frantic apex Saturday night and into Sunday morning — began months ago, when each coach took his share of Big Ten teams to scout for the season. At the time, Washington was assigned to Michigan State and Yaklich to Wisconsin. That’s why, while the pair sat in front of 18,000 fans on Saturday afternoon, Haynes was somewhere beneath the arena, hidden from public sight. His teams, including Iowa, Michigan’s quarterfinal opponent, had all been eliminated.
But even with months of film collected and scrutinized on each potential opponent, Saturday provided a golden opportunity not available to the Wolverines’ coaches during the regular season.
“Sometimes (watching live), you can pick out some play calls,” Washington said, “so that when they run them in the game or call them out in the game, you can message that to the players a little bit more quickly, you know what’s going on.”
The problem now is imparting all they’ve learned over the past few months onto a team that spent the last day preparing for Minnesota and the week before that on a trio of potential quarterfinal opponents. For Michigan’s staff, that process began as soon as they walked off the floor Saturday with a ticket to the championship game in hand.
As the players showered and changed in the locker room, coaches watched film. As the players did their recovery, coaches watched film. As the players ate dinner, coaches watched film. After dinner, they reconvened at the team hotel downtown and held a team meeting to discuss Michigan State, but the majority of Saturday night was spent the same way. Coaches watching film and players recuperating.
This may seem strange, considering the work Washington had already put into scouting the Spartans. But now, with only one team on the mind, it becomes a full team effort — Yaklich dissecting the defense; Haynes and Director of Program Personnel Chinedu Nwachukwu assigned to the offense; and Washington and head coach John Beilein overseeing it all.
“We’ll talk a little bit about Michigan State, but then have everything ready for tomorrow,” Yaklich said. “It’s the third time we’ve played, we just played them two weeks ago, so it’s just about really honing in on what we did wrong and what we can do better. And then with any adjustments that we saw that they did in the game, we’ll try to tweak what we do.”
Sunday morning, the attention will switch to drilling every corner of the gameplan into the team. What exactly that gameplan is remains a mystery — partially because no coach would dream of sharing it with reporters, but partially because it was still in its infantile stages when they last spoke with the media Saturday afternoon.
Eventually, though, a gameplan will come into focus. The Wolverines — instilled with months of research condensed into a few short meetings — will know it by heart. Then, they’ll take to the court and there will be just one thing left to do: play Michigan basketball.