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How a former high school history teacher became the key to Michigan's Final Four run

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LOS ANGELES — Michigan’s transformation into a Final Four contender began last July at an oyster bar inside a Las Vegas casino.

That’s where John Beilein decided to entrust his defense to a virtual stranger only four years removed from coaching high school basketball and teaching U.S. history in Joliet, Illinois.

Luke Yaklich wasn’t even on Beilein’s radar last June when the Michigan coach began hunting for an assistant coach to put in charge of patching the holes in the Wolverines’ long-neglected defense. Beilein had neither met nor heard of Yaklich until Illinois State coach Dan Muller called to recommend his longtime friend and fourth-year assistant.

What Beilein learned during an hour-long phone interview with Yaklich was that they had a lot in common, from their teaching backgrounds, to their insatiable work ethic, to their meticulous attention to detail. Yaklich also had the requisite credentials as a defensive guru, having coached defense-oriented high school teams in Illinois for more than a decade before joining Muller’s staff at Illinois State and helping transform his alma mater into a defensive powerhouse.

Understandably wary of hiring someone he didn’t know, Beilein sought to glean more information about Yaklich by speaking with his high school coach, several principals he previously worked for and members of the staff at Illinois State. Beilein also asked Yaklich to send video clips. of himself instructing Illinois State players during practices.

“I don’t care what you know if you can’t teach it,” Beilein told Yaklich. “I want to hear your voice. I want to know who you are as a teacher.”

Flattered to even be under consideration despite neither having ties to Michigan and nor having played beyond high school, Yaklich made it his mission to prove to Beilein that he could do the job. He gathered practice clips that highlighted his communication skills. He studied dozens of hours of Michigan game film from the previous three seasons. And he prepared a thick portfolio that included scouting reports of each returning player and diagrams of schemes that fit Michigan’s personnel.

Six weeks into his search for a new assistant, Beilein finally was ready to admit he had found his man. The Michigan coach offered Yaklich the position over a plate of oysters at the end of their second in-person interview during the July recruiting period.

“I remember my jaw about hit the floor and I teared up right at that table,” Yaklich said. “I felt so blessed, lucky and fortunate to have this opportunity.”

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Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich transformed the Wolverines into a defensive juggernaut this season. (AP)
Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich transformed the Wolverines into a defensive juggernaut this season. (AP)

Eight months later, it’s clear that Michigan is just as blessed, lucky and fortunate to have Yaklich on its staff as he is to be in Ann Arbor. The surging Wolverines would not have secured a spot in this weekend’s Final Four were it not for the defensive uprising he has spearheaded.

A Michigan program accustomed to winning with breathtaking offense has piled up 32 victories this season by relying on its long-maligned defense instead. The Wolverines are No. 3 in the nation in overall defense, 34 spots above their previous high under Beilein and 70 spots more than their average during his previous 10 seasons.

The shift in Michigan’s identity has never been more apparent than during the NCAA tournament the past two weeks. The Wolverines torched Texas A&M for 99 points on an eye-popping 1.38 points per possession in the Sweet 16 last Thursday, but their other three NCAA tournament victories were largely defense-driven.

Michigan’s 58-54 victory over Florida State in Sunday’s West Regional final was a game only someone as defense-oriented as Yaklich could love. In a gritty, physical game rife with bruises and floor burns, the Wolverines overcame 4-for-22 shooting from behind the arc by forcing 14 first-half turnovers and holding the Seminoles to 23.3 percent shooting after halftime.

“Beautiful. It was beautiful,” Yaklich said with a satisfied smile.

The first priority Yaklich drilled into his team before Saturday’s game was to take away Florida State’s vaunted transition attack. The Wolverines responded by not surrendering a single fast-break point to a Seminoles team that scored 14 two nights earlier against Gonzaga.

The second point of emphasis from Yaklich was keeping Florida State from generating second-chance points. Michigan held the Seminoles below their season average in offensive rebounding percentage despite playing four guards for most of the game.

Yaklich’s final objective was to successfully foil Florida State’s pick-and-roll game and force the Seminoles to win the game shooting contested jumpers. The Wolverines fought over screens, made crisp rotations and recovered to shooters quickly, contributing to the Seminoles scoring almost nothing easy at the rim from start to finish.

“You have to take away the roll man against Florida State,” Yaklich said. “They’re so big and long. You watch them on video, and they’re throwing dunks in from five or six feet away. We just had to stop their momentum to the basket and then it’s the effort we always talk about on defense of getting back to the shooters.

“We have a phrase that we yell every day in practice every time a ball screen is set, and that’s “Do your job.” That means you’ve got to sprint to where you’re supposed to be right away. Those practice habits helped.”

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Michigan forward Moritz Wagner, foreground, and teammates celebrate after defeating Florida State 58-54 in an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional final Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Michigan forward Moritz Wagner, foreground, and teammates celebrate after defeating Florida State 58-54 in an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional final Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Michigan owes its improved defense to Beilein’s willingness to reinvent himself more than four decades into a decorated career.

When Michigan’s defense slid to the Big Ten’s bottom third for three straight seasons from 2014-2016, Beilein decided it was time to make a change. Fearing that his preference for offense had contributed to the Wolverines not prioritizing defense enough, he decided to designate an assistant coach as defensive coordinator and delegate defensive responsibilities to him.

“We had gotten to the NCAA Tournament, but our defense was not terrific,” Beilein said. “We made it by outshooting people. That’s when I said, ‘You know what, I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. I want to hire somebody that thinks differently than me and prioritizes defense.'”

Michigan made modest gains defensively last season when Beilein hired former Wright State coach Billy Donlon to fill the defensive coordinator role. Donlon’s decision to leave for hometown Northwestern last June forced Beilein to search the country anew for another defensive mastermind.

By no means did Yaklich’s arrival last summer spark an overnight defensive transformation at Michigan. LSU, North Carolina and Ohio State actually shredded the Wolverines in their three losses before Christmas.

Everything began to change in early January when sophomore Zavier Simpson displayed enough command of the offense and discipline on defense to regain the trust of the coaching staff and seize the starting point guard job. All of a sudden Michigan’s defense had a leader, a 6-foot pit bull who not only prided himself on hounding opposing guards but also wasn’t afraid to scold his teammates if they didn’t dive for a loose ball, sprint back in transition or fight over the top of a screen.

Simpson’s contagious defensive tenacity gradually spread to his teammates. Wings Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman embraced the role of perimeter stoppers. Sharpshooting forward Duncan Robinson took greater pride in holding his ground in the post and contributing on both ends of the floor. And top big man Moritz Wagner began defending ball screens more effectively and fighting to secure rebounds outside his area.

“I think Zavier laid the foundation for our defense,” Yaklich said. “From there, other guys began adding two or three bricks at a time. Then when it helps you win a couple games, that’s how you build a whole wall.”

Yaklich contributed to Michigan’s emergence with his combination of meticulous preparation and effective communication. He builds defensive scouting reports for every opponent, he calls out assignments from the bench in real time during games and he strikes a near-perfect balance between fully preparing players without overloading them with needless information.

“He has been incredible,” Robinson said. “His work ethic, what he puts into it, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. He’s just a basketball nut. I feel like that’s something he and I have in common. Our relationship has grown so much this year, and he has been a guy I can always count on. Defensively, schematically he is second to none.”

* * * * *

As she snapped photos of her husband climbing a yellow ladder, snipping a piece of net and raising it triumphantly in the air after Saturday night’s victory, Amy Yaklich struggled to contain her emotions.

She couldn’t help but reflect on her husband’s stunning rise from coaching in some far-flung high school game in the Chicago suburbs five years ago to playing an integral role in guiding a team to the Final Four today.

“I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does,” Amy Yaklich said. “He watches an incredible amount of film. He has been to so many clinics. He just loves learning. He’s always looking to learn from other coaches. When it comes to basketball, he’s like a sponge.”

It was Amy who first sent her husband a message about the Michigan openings and Amy who pushed him to apply. When he argued that it was probably pointless because he had no ties to Beilein or Michigan, she encouraged him to try anyway, telling him, “All they can say is, ‘No, I don’t want to talk to you.’ Make a call, and see what you can do.”

When Beilein finally offered Yaklich the job in Las Vegas last July, Amy was back home fishing with their son. She learned Yaklich had landed the position when he sent her a big block “M” via text message.

If Yaklich was glad his wife pushed him to pursue the Michigan opening then, he’s overjoyed now. Eyes glassy and upper lip quivering with emotion, he pondered his unusual road to the Final Four on Saturday night shortly after tucking his prized piece of twine into the pocket of the suit jacket he was wearing.

“There’s a lot of great coaches out there at the high school level who dream about what this feels like, and I was one of those guys,” he said. “I’m blessed and fortunate to have it now.”

Soon after that conversation, Michigan moved its celebration from the Staples Center floor to its locker room. As Yaklich walked toward the tunnel, a Wolverines fan in the stands gave the team’s unsung hero his due.

“Great defense today, coach,” the fan shouted at Yaklich.

Beautiful. It was beautiful.

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!