Amidst the chaos in the Michigan locker room following the team’s 58-54 victory over Florida State to advance to the Final Four, the most powerful image in the room filled with hugs and celebrations was the one pinned to the whiteboard at the front of the room. A 12 x 12 photo of a rabid pitbull was situated for all to see, but few seemed to notice it. In a way, that may as well be a metaphor for assistant coach Luke Yaklich. The team’s conventional pitbull is Zavier Simpson, but in a way he’s personified the mentality of the Wolverines’ defensive coach.
In his first year in Ann Arbor after several at Illinois State, Yaklich has transformed the defense into an elite unit. Aided by excellent personnel that possesses both length and the ability to defend individually on the perimeter, Yaklich molded the team into exactly that -- a team. As the season progressed, Yaklich’s team learned how to defend on a string and in unison; rotating seamlessly from the weakside to protect the rim despite hard-hedging pick and rolls, closing out hard but under control, and making sure everyone found a body on box-outs.
Last night, I could have spoken to anyone in the locker room. But my heart, and inner basketball nerd, led me to Yaklich. While the players on the court, deservedly so, had gotten all of the praise for their stellar defense, I became increasingly impressed by the man on the sideline who knew which play the opposition was running each time down the floor. As opponents crossed half-court, Yaklich sprung from his chair, cupped his hands around his lips and hollered out the play that would soon be run. I first noticed this against Northwestern, when late in the game Yaklich recognized the Wildcats preparing to run the Spurs’ famous hammer play. Naturally, after Yaklich relayed to his team the incoming play, the Wildcats ran hammer, but were stifled by Jon Teske, who heeded his coach’s call and stepped into the perfect position to prevent a score. This weekend in Los Angeles,, Yaklich was at least two steps ahead of the Aggies and Seminoles at every turn, as he has against opponents all season, announcing plays before they occurred.
While speaking to reporters, Yaklich’s passion for the game was almost as impressive as his eloquence. Yaklich praised players regarding their talent and effort, alluding to their penchant for leaving everything on the floor and always giving their all, even in practice. He frequently referred to the team’s grit, intensity, and how hard they grind, all of which he would never admit can be traced back to him. Despite deflecting the praise, kenpom highlights just how important Yaklich has been towards defensive excellence. Last season, Illinois State ranked 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency. This year they ranked 137th. In the same one year span, Michigan jumped to 4th after finishing 69th in 2017. Call it the Yaklich Factor.
Although ever quick to defer praise to his superb players and the lessons he has learned under John Beilein, Yaklich has been key to the Wolverines’ improvement relative to last season’s squad, and even the team they were at the beginning of the season. Although the national appreciation has not come as readily as it should have, Yaklich is unfazed, and appears prepared to return to what he and his mentally tough team do best: keep grinding.