In years past, the Michigan men’s basketball team operated under the mantra “The best defense is a good offense.” They suffocated opposing defenses with their 3-point shooting, but their own defense sometimes held them back. Last season, though, the Wolverines flipped the script. They ranked third in the country in Adjusted Defense, according to KenPom.com. That was largely thanks to new assistant Luke Yaklich from Illinois State.
Under Yaklich, younger players like sophomore guard Zavier Simpson developed into defensive stalwarts, but even junior forward Moritz Wagner and fifth-year senior wing Duncan Robinson — veterans whose defensive presence was previously almost non-existent — vastly improved. With a down year for the offense, the new defensive mindset helped lead Michigan to the national title game.
Yaklich, meanwhile, is just getting started, and this year he will have the country’s No. 8 recruiting class to work with.
“Our entire coaching staff, it’s a great learning environment every day. And then obviously learning from our players what Michigan is all about, the culture. (The players are) 100 percent invested in that. They helped me … just showed me what Michigan basketball is about. That was a huge part of my own growth.”
Now, it’s a symbiotic relationship. The players come excited to learn, making Yaklich’s job much easier. And the culture that Michigan coach John Beilein and the players built up was unparalleled.
“Integrity (and) accountability are two of our core values. We live those out every day,” Yaklich said. “… When it’s part of your culture, it’s part of your behavior, and that’s again, our focus each and every day.”
On his relationship with Colin Castleton
Incoming freshman center Colin Castleton didn’t originally draw a lot of college interest. But one of the first schools that contacted him was Illinois State — an effort led by Yaklich. When Yaklich joined the Wolverines, he continued contact with Castleton. Now, at Michigan, the two will be reunited.
“When I got to Michigan, (Castleton) built himself up to that point where he was something we needed,” Yaklich said. “We just struck up that relationship again and started right where we left off. It’s been fun following him through that process.”
Castleton will compete with junior Jon Teske and redshirt sophomore Austin Davis for minutes at the center position.
On the development of the underclassmen
The Wolverines’ run to the title game was largely led by veterans — from Wagner to Robinson to senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. But from freshman guard Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater to propel Michigan to the Sweet Sixteen to redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews earning the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player award, the underclassmen showed that the Wolverines’ future is bright.
“They’ve learned from (Robinson, Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman),” Yaklich said. “ … It’s a pleasure seeing their growth from last year to this year. (They’re) all veterans in their own little ways. A lot of it is their approach to the game and understanding what it took to do what we did last year, and the role our seniors had in that. They want to have the same type of goal, leadership style and legacy.”
On Jordan Poole
Everyone remembers Poole for his buzzer-beater against Houston and his viral video set to Drake’s “In My Feelings.” But entering his sophomore year, Poole has a whole career ahead of him. With the graduation of Abdur-Rahkman, Poole will have the opportunity to step up — not just in the role of shooting guard, but also as one of the team’s leaders.
“A lot of fans outside the stadium see the dance moves and the smiley face, but behind it is a really competitive player that comes out every day and wants to be a leader,” Yaklich said. “That is the fun part about Jordan Poole. He’s comfortable in his own skin, but he’s a leader, wants Michigan to be really good and is working to improve himself in the process.
“He’s a special player.”