SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Five years ago to the day, Luke Yaklich was coaching his son’s AAU team, getting set to watch the Final Four on the couch with his wife, Amy.
“The (other) option would have been fishing with my father,” Yaklich said Friday afternoon, minutes before Michigan took the floor for its final practice prior to its national semifinal bout against Loyola-Chicago on Saturday evening.
Yaklich probably shouldn’t be here — not in this locker room, not the anchor behind one of the nation’s best defenses, nor the toast of Ann Arbor. Not one of the hottest names in national college basketball coaching. Not this quickly. Certainly not two wins from a national title and eternal Michigan history.
And he’s not alone.
Facing a slew of national media, fifth-year Duncan Robinson was asked if he could explain the difference between the Final Four in Division III and the experience he was getting this week. Robinson, a transfer from Divison III Williams College three years ago, played in the Division III National Title game in 2014, his lone season in Williamstown, Ma.
“Incomparable, quite frankly,” Robinson said with a hearty chuckle. “I thought the D-III Final Four was sweet, man. We got a police escort to the game and that was it. Not that there was any traffic in Salem, Virginia.”
And the list goes on. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was a two-star afterthought, only offered a scholarship on a whim months before he stepped on campus. Junior center Moritz Wagner was a lightly recruited kid from Germany, who won over Michigan coach John Beilein with his personality in an elevator ride. Fifth-year senior Jaaron Simmons got here on a winding, incongruent path from Houston to Ohio to Michigan.
“I step back and appreciate every moment,” Simmons said. “Everywhere I’ve been, the whole journey of getting to this point, it’s just been great. But I always catch myself thinking, like, ‘Man it’s almost over.’ ”
Michigan as a team and as a group of individuals has thrived all year off the underdog role. They came into the year unranked and unregarded, and each player possesses a unique story of obstacles he overcame to reach San Antonio this weekend.
“At the start of the season, they didn’t really have us on any ranking or any prediction list at all,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “I think that was definitely our motivation.”
Yet the Wolverines come into Saturday’s game against 11th-seeded Loyola the prohibitive favorite. Various oddsmakers peg them as around a six-point favorite, depending on where you’re looking. Kenpom.com gives Michigan a 67 percent chance to win the game, and predicts a 65-60 score. The Ramblers won their first three games of the NCAA Tournament by a combined four points, boosted by the energy of a 98-year-old nun, and come into the game just the fourth 11-seed in history to make the Final Four.
In any other context, their ascent fits the Cinderella mold to a T.
But forgive me if the cliche David v. Goliath narrative feels unbecoming of this national semifinal matchup.
Throw the seed-lines out of the window, ignore conference stature, watch some tape and you’ll quickly understand why.
Michigan, with its roster of underrecruited gems and molded crew of transfers, is unsuited for the hulking Goliath role.
And Loyola, a team branded on disciplined offense and cohesive defense, is no David. The Ramblers are simply too good to have their success diminished to shrugs and pixie dust.
Loyola is happy to be here, as each team is. Guard Clayton Custer finished his entire press conference without losing his gleaming smile. But he and his teammates — and their 98-year-old sparkplug — aren’t just happy to be here.
This isn’t Georgetown/Villanova in 1985, a matchup of Patrick Ewing and his titanic teammates facing off against the plucky mid-major. Nor is it George Mason/Florida in 2006, the end to a magic carpet ride for a team playing above its weight for an entire month.
“They can call us Cinderella all they want,” said Loyola guard Bruno Skokna. “But every guy on the team feels comfortable with saying that we can beat anyone.”
And why shouldn’t they?
Loyola has lost only once since January 7th, and are fresh off a 16-point beatdown over Kansas State in the Elite Eight. The Missouri Valley Conference champions boast a balanced team with five different players averaging in double-figures scoring and seven different players shooting above 35 percent from 3-point range for the season. And, like Michigan, the Ramblers’ efficient offense is anchored by a top-20 adjusted defensive efficiency, with the athleticism capable of switching most screens fluidly.
About halfway through his breakout session Friday afternoon, Custer got a question from a member of the foreign media, trying to explain to his overseas viewers why the Ramblers’ presence alone was a “Cinderella story.”
Custer offered a candid and insightful answer, ripe for the foreign audience to comprehend the sheer magnanimity of a mid-major school in this position.
“We come from a smaller school,” he said. “We might not necessarily be the biggest guys, we might not necessarily be the most talented guys. But we came together, we worked hard and we played. We love each other, we trusted each other. … We’re not supposed to be here, but we are.”
But he wasn’t done. After all, his team is two wins from a national title, too. He’s not going to apologize for that.
“I think a lot of us don’t really think of ourselves as that big of a Cinderella. We’re 32-5. Without a couple injuries we could only have two or three losses this year. We’ve been winning games all year.
“We think we belong on this stage.”