Thanks to the major shake-up in Ann Arbor with long-time head coach John Beilein departing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, head coach Shaka Smart filled the open vacancy on his staff by hiring former Michigan Wolverines assistant Luke Yaklich.
Before taking the Associate Head Coach role on the Texas Longhorns staff, the 43-year-old coach was a finalist for Michigan’s head coaching vacancy until the program hired Juwan Howard, a famed member of Michigan’s Fab Five.
Similar to his former counterpart, Yaklich built himself from the ground up as a basketball coach. Prior to his first stint on the college stage, Yaklich was teaching social studies and coaching basketball at the high school level for nearly a decade and a half. Just six years removed from his his most recent high school role with Joliet West, which capped with Yaklich leading the Tigers to the IHSA Class 4A Lockport Regional title, the Illinois native faces his next challenge — a chance to help revitalize a Texas program that hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in over a decade.
Namely, Yaklich’s presence should become most evident defensively.
In his short six years as an assistant coach, Yaklich has successfully improved his team’s defense each and every season.
At Illinois State, where he began his college coaching career under the guidnance of head coach Dan Muller, the Redbirds gradually rose from 134th to 19th nationally in adjusted defense during Yaklich’s four years there. After Muller passed Yaklich’s name along to Beilein, Yaklich was hired and eventually fulfilled the role as what essentially amounted to Michigan’s defensive coordinator.
His immediate impact transformed Michigan into an elite defensive team, as the Wolverines ranked among the nation’s best in adjusted defensive efficiency each of the past two seasons.
KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Ratings under Luke Yaklich:
- 2013-14 — Illinois State (134th)
- 2014-15 — Illinois State (54th)
- 2015-16 — Illinois State (38th)
- 2016-17 — Illinois State (19th)
- 2017-18 — Michigan (3rd)
- 2018-19 — Michigan (2nd)
To put Yaklich’s success at Michigan into greater perspective: the Wolverines never finished above 37th in adjusted defense throughout Beilein’s previous 10 seasons.
As Michigan arose into a defensive juggernaut under Yaklich, his coaching eased things up for Beilein. While Yaklich handled the defensive duties, Beilein was able to shift his focus towards Michigan’s half-court offense. This lethal offense-defense combination led Michigan to their first back-to-back 30-win seasons in program history.
While making the major transition from high school to Division 1, how has Yaklich transformed into one of the game’s top assistant coaches so quickly and what is it that makes him so successful? A big part of coaching success in college basketball comes from the preparation. And it’d be hard to find many coaches that prepare more than Yaklich does for games. During his time at Michigan, Yaklich was once too embarrassed to answer a question on how much time he spent watching film. That’s how devoted he is to the game.
Now, for the last year-plus, it’s been Beilein receiving a long text message or email at 11 p.m. or 6 a.m. “His observations from the day before,” Beilein explained. “Most coaches will wait for practice the next day or a practice meeting.” Yaklich can’t wait, though.
After spending years learning under the guidance of his mentors, Muller and Beilein, Yaklich became a quick learner at perfecting the man-to-man defense in his short time with those programs. Along with a tremendous drive and passion for the game of coaching, he brings valuable basketball wisdom with him behind their fundamental and intricate coaching concepts.
His defense is rooted through the intricacies of team man-to-man defense and requires timely execution from all five players on the floor to play it well. Perfecting basic attributes like discipline, activity, and teamwork helps maximize the success of his defensive style. Stemming all the way back to his high school teaching and coaching days, Yaklich represents that ‘bottom-up’ drive in his coaching to get most out of his players.
To further speak for how well-disciplined his defense can be, Michigan was well known for committing a low number of fouls each game under Yaklich. Last season, they finished second in the NCAA for fewest team fouls with just 13.9 committed per game.
The most important intricacies of his man-to-man defense focus on the positioning of each defender, the percentage of rebounds grabbed, and contesting as many shots as possible. He really stresses over minimizing the space between the defender and the ball handler to help fill gaps and make it easier to work around ball screens. It’s an aggressive on-ball style of defense that can be very effective through a high-level of focus and preparation.
“Stress contested shots,” Yaklich says. “You have to make them miss... Contest every shot with every fiber of your being. At this level, there are so many darn good players, if you’re not playing hard and locked in and trying to make them miss, you can’t rely on hope and faith.”
Yaklich is entering a familiar territory with the offensive style of play, too. Texas finished below Michigan in adjusted tempo last season, averaging just 64.7 possessions per game.
We’ve seen how successful Chris Beard has been at Texas Tech with a defensive specialist along his side. Now, let’s see what Smart, who has led Texas to three consecutive top-25 finishes in adjusted defensive efficiency, can achieve with a coach like Yaklich on his staff.
And considering how quickly he’s worked his way up already, don’t be surprised if Yaklich moves on after only a season or two in Austin and becomes a head coach somewhere else. He’s that good.