Row the boat: Minnesota officially announces P.J. Fleck as next head football coach

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AP

Row the boat: Minnesota officially announces P.J. Fleck as next head football coach

P.J. Fleck has rowed his boat to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Minnesota officially announced Friday morning that Fleck is the new Gophers football coach.

Fleck, who spent the past four seasons turning Western Michigan from a one-win team into a 13-win team and MAC champion, succeeds Tracy Claeys, who was fired earlier this week.

"It's an honor to coach at Minnesota and be part of the Big Ten conference," Fleck said in the announcement. "I want to thank president Eric Kaler, athletic director Mark Coyle and the Board of Regents for this opportunity. I also want to thank Western Michigan, my players and the great fans and city of Kalamazoo for a wonderful four years.

"I look forward to meeting my new players and getting to know them as quickly as possible. I am excited to put together a staff and turn my efforts to recruiting, but also want Gopher fans to know that my wife, Heather, and I and our four children will be visible in the community and we are eager to connect with them. I am ready to go. Ski-U-Mah!"

Fleck is known as much for his personality as he is for the winning he did with the Broncos. Young and energetic, Fleck is famous for his motivational catch phrases, chiefly "row the boat." His pregame speeches are often played on ESPN, and his highlight reel includes him leaping all over the place with his players and suiting up in uniform and participating in Oklahoma drills.

Fleck is a Midwestern guy, a native of Sugar Grove, Ill. — a product of Kaneland High School — who played his college ball at Northern Illinois. He returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach under former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, the current Rutgers offensive coordinator, before spending three years as an assistant to Greg Schiano, the current Ohio State defensive coordinator, both at Rutgers and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While the program is hardly on solid footing at the moment, it's hard to imagine that Fleck won't be able to energize the fan base, players and recruits out of the doldrums that exist in the wake of Claeys' firing. Claeys was let go after his first full season by first-year athletics director Coyle in the fallout of a player boycott. Players took that action, albeit brief, after a university investigation into a sexual assault resulted in the suspensions of 10 of their teammates. While the players believed they were standing up for wrongly punished teammates — a police investigation into the same incident yielded no charges in the fall — they did so without reading the university's investigative report and quickly ended their boycott once they did. The public strongly disagreed with the group action, one Claeys supported. Those 10 suspended players face expulsions and varying degrees of suspensions.

On the field, Minnesota was experiencing rare program success under Claeys and Kill. The Gophers have won eight or more games in three of the past four seasons, and this year's nine-win finish was the first since 2003 and just the eighth in program history.

Fleck worked wonders at Western Michigan, posting a 33-20 record in four seasons. After a 1-11 record in Year 1, he won eight games in each of the next two seasons before this 13-1 campaign that ended in a MAC championship and a trip to a New Year's Six bowl game. Coincidentally, Western Michigan lost the Cotton Bowl to Minnesota's biggest rival, Wisconsin.

Players and Kill have sounded off on the administration's handling of the past several weeks and blasted it over Claeys' firing. But it would be hard to see Fleck not changing their minds.

"P.J. is a proven winner and a strong leader. He's built a unique, positive culture that gets the best out of his students on the field and in the classroom," Coyle said in the announcement. "His infectious energy and passion make him a terrific coach and dynamic recruiter. I am excited he will be leading the Gophers for years to come."

Fleck was one of the hottest coaching candidates around this offseason, though he didn't land at any of the bigger-name programs that had head-coaching vacancies. It's a great get for Minnesota and hardly a job to settle for for Fleck. Any Big Ten job is a great one given the ample resources and national stage that come as being a part of the program. Plus, Fleck is coaching in the Big Ten West, which typically offers a much easier path to the league title game than the loaded Big Ten East.

Fleck joins a crazy roster of coaches in that division, though. Illinois' Lovie Smith, Iowa' Kirk Ferentz, Nebraska's Mike Riley, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Purdue's Jeff Brohm and Wisconsin's Paul Chryst are his new competition, not to mention Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Penn State's James Franklin in the other division.

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

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USA TODAY

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

Michigan's March magic finally ran out.

The guy who's been so fantastic throughout his senior season, point guard Derrick Walton Jr., missed a game-winning 3-point try at the buzzer, and the Wolverines fell to the Oregon Ducks by a 69-68 final score in the Sweet Sixteen.

It was an incredibly competitive game between the Big Ten Tournament champs and the Pac-12 regular-season champs, with neither side ever leading by more than six.

But Moe Wagner, who scored a career-high 26 points in Michigan's second-round win over Louisville, was pretty much a non-factor in this one, scoring just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Still, seniors Walton and Zak Irvin kept an unusually cold-shooting group of Wolverines alive with a combined 39 points, 23 of which came after halftime. D.J. Wilson also scored in double figures with 12, all coming on 3-pointers.

But Michigan, which had been on fire offensively for much of the last month, shot just 43.1 percent from the field and missed 20 of its 31 shots from behind the arc.

The Wolverines actually shot under 40 percent over the opening 20 minutes as the two defenses did good work for these typically high-scoring squads. Michigan turned the ball over seven times before the break but trailed by just two as it went to the locker room.

The tit-for-tat nature of the game continued at the outset of the second half before Oregon reached its game-high six-point lead, but Michigan responded with seven straight and grabbed its first lead of the second half around the 11-minute mark. The Ducks answered that mini surge with six straight of their own, part of a larger 10-4 spurt, before Wilson and Walton hit back-to-back triples to once again give the Wolverines a narrow advantage, this time with a little more than four minutes remaining.

Oregon and Irvin traded buckets from there, and a Walton jumper was Michigan's sixth straight make from the field, putting the Wolverines up three with under two minutes to play. But Michigan didn't score again, and Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey got back-to-back layups, the latter the game-winning one ahead of Walton's missed 3-point attempt as time ran out.

Dorsey was fantastic for the Ducks, scoring 20 points, his sixth straight game with at least 20 points. Bell had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Oregon advanced to its second straight Elite Eight with the win.

Michigan's entertaining end-of-season run is over. Entering Thursday night's game in Kansas City, the Wolverines had won seven straight and 10 of their last 12. Those two losses came by a combined seven points. Add this loss in and just eight points separated Michigan from 13 consecutive wins.

Certainly this group of Wolverines will be remembered for its sensational four wins in four days at the Big Ten Tournament after that horrifying aborted takeoff, as well as for reaching the third Sweet Sixteen in the last five seasons under John Beilein.

Sweet Sixteen preview: How many Big Ten teams will advance to Elite Eight?

Sweet Sixteen preview: How many Big Ten teams will advance to Elite Eight?

The Big Ten had as good an NCAA tournament as any conference through one weekend. But now the alliterative rounds begin, and it's time to see how far the league's three teams left standing can go.

Purdue, Michigan and Wisconsin will continue their respective dances this weekend, with Sweet Sixteen games being played Thursday and Friday.

Will all three reach the Elite Eight? Will all three lose in the regional semifinals? Here's a preview of the three Sweet Sixteen games.

Midwest Region: No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 3 Oregon, 6:09 p.m., Thursday

Perhaps no team in the country is on the kind of roll the Wolverines have been on. Michigan has won seven straight and 10 of its last 12 games, with those two losses — both regular-season games — coming by a combined seven points, one in overtime and one on "The Pass" in that thrilling Northwestern game. You can point to the terrifying aborted takeoff and the ensuing run through the Big Ten Tournament as the start of something special for these Wolverines, but they've been doing this for a while now. Derrick Walton Jr. has been as good as any point guard in the country, leading an offense that has been on fire. Michigan shot a jaw-dropping 63 percent from the field in a second-round win over Louisville. That a game after it hit 16 3-pointers in its first-round win over Oklahoma State. Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson clicked at the same time in the last game, and Zak Irvin is always lethal shooting the ball.

None of this is to say Oregon will be an easy task. The Ducks have won 10 of 11 and have a whopping 31 victories on the season. They needed some huge last-minute points to barely get by 11th-seeded Rhode Island in the second round, but Oregon's been mighty impressive in its own right offensively. The Ducks average nearly 80 points a game, and sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey has been lighting up the scoreboard of late, scoring 20-plus points in each of his last five games, all postseason tilts, and averaging 23.6 points a game over that stretch. Star guard Dillon Brooks is averaging 20.2 points a game over his last 14.

Hopefully the offensive fun continues and both teams score into the 90s like Michigan did in its first-round game with Oklahoma State. But the stars will determine this one, and the showdown between the guard tandems should be exciting. Michigan might be able to get an edge with its stretch bigs.

The pick: Yes, Michigan keeps rolling with Wagner and/or Wilson the difference.

Midwest Region: No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas, 8:39 p.m., Thursday

The Boilermakers might be getting overlooked for various reasons as they've reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010. Purdue was the hands-down class of the Big Ten during the regular season but has been overshadowed by the unexpected runs of conference-mates Michigan and Wisconsin. Not to mention the fact that a matchup with Kansas on Thursday in Kansas City is one of the least enviable outcomes in this tournament, especially after Purdue had to sweat out first-weekend wins over Vermont and Iowa State. Still, the Boilers are better suited to go head to head with the Jayhawks than most. Purdue's size will again be of value, Caleb Swanigan one of the best players in the country. The Big Ten Player of the Year could be the national player of the year, and all he's done in two tournament games is score 36 points, grab 26 rebounds, hand out 11 assists and block four shots. Vincent Edwards has also been great in two tournament games, scoring a combined 42 points and grabbing a combined 15 rebounds. With those two cooking, these Boilers can compete with anyone, and that's without mentioning the rest of this mostly veteran lineup.

Kansas, though, as anyone who watched the Jayhawks dismantle Michigan State in the second half last Sunday knows, is very, very good. Freshman star Josh Jackson has been as impressive as any player in the tournament, and he was electric against Sparty, dropping 23 points in what ended up being a 20-point beat down by the Jayhawks. That stellar performance followed a 17-point effort in the first-round win. But Jackson isn't even Kansas' best player, as Frank Mason III could be the guy to edge Swanigan for national player of the year honors. He's averaging better than 20 points a game on the season and has been remarkably consistent since the start of the tournament, scoring 22 against UC-Davis and 20 against Michigan State. And this is a Bill Self Kansas team, so obviously it's more than a two-man show.

This could be an epic clash between two really talented teams and two teams who were their conference's best all season long. Of course, Kansas is so good — and essentially playing in a home-court environment in Kansas City — that a second straight Big Ten beat down wouldn't be out of the question either.

The pick: Kansas was too good against Michigan State, and though Purdue has been a significantly better team than Michigan State this season, Kansas looks to be too good for almost anybody. Expect more eye-popping highlights from Jackson and Mason.

East Region: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida, 8:59 p.m., Friday

The talk of the tournament is Wisconsin after its sensational second-round upset of No. 1 overall seed Villanova. The Badgers proved the selection committee it was better than a No. 8 seed — something that ended up being a bigger problem for Villanova than it was for Wisconsin, obviously — with the two veterans of those back-to-back Final Four runs, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, powering the upset. Hayes has stepped up out of quasi-nowhere after a relatively disappointing regular season. After being pegged as the Big Ten's preseason player of the year, Hayes was inconsistent throughout much of the campaign, but he showed up with a force in his team's biggest game of the season, scoring 19 points, including the game-winning basket in the game's final seconds, a Jordan-esque game-winner. Koenig added 17 points in that game and came up with some clutch shots. What else would you expect? Momentum is certainly on the Badgers' side, with five wins in six games after that nasty late-season slide. This is the Wisconsin team we all expected at season's start, and along with Hayes and Koenig are fellow starters Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter, who were also around for those Final Four runs and have been coming up with their own mammoth plays through the first two rounds of this tournament. That veteran presence and March experience can't be overstated.

Florida hasn't been nearly as impressive as all the other teams discussed so far, just 3-3 in its last six games, two of those losses back-to-back defeats to Vanderbilt, which made a first-round exit from this tournament. But here the Gators are after wins over East Tennessee State and Virginia, big wins, too, coming by an average of 20.5 points a game. That win over Virginia was a bludgeoning of a good team, though the Cavaliers didn't come anywhere close to ready to play in that one, not even mustering 40 points, a real weak showing from a No. 5 seed. In fact, Florida's last four wins are double-digit victories over tournament teams. Prior to these two March games, the Gators beat both Arkansas and South Carolina, two teams who have had good showings in the Big Dance. The most productive player for Florida in this tournament has been Devin Robinson, who has totaled 38 points and 18 rebounds in the two wins.

As mentioned, momentum is on Wisconsin's side. The veteran experience of these long tournament runs in recent seasons is invaluable, and if Koenig and Hayes keep making those late-game plays, the Badgers seem unbeatable right now. And, after Duke went down to South Carolina last weekend, it kind of seems like Wisconsin is suddenly the favorite in the East Region.

The pick: Badgers keep Badgers-ing. Remember when we wanted to rename March "Izzo"? Maybe we should rename it "Wisconsin." This could make it three Elite Eight trips in four seasons. Why not three Final Four trips in four seasons, too?

Picking the rest

Only three games in the Sweet Sixteen feature Big Ten teams, but you probably want picks from the other five, right?

Well, here goes:

— West Region: No. 4 West Virginia over No. 1 Gonzaga
— West Region: No. 2 Arizona over No. 11 Xavier
— South Region: No. 4 Butler over No. 1 North Carolina
— South Region: No. 3 UCLA over. No. 2 Kentucky
— East Region: No. 7 South Carolina over No. 3 Baylor