The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

IMG 4736 1.0 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

America’s Western Illinois Leathernecks start their run in the 2028 NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed.

Welcome back to our simulated dynasty with the Western Illinois Leathernecks in College Hoops 2K8. You can find a full explanation of this project + spoiler-free links to previous seasons here. Check out the introduction to this series from early April for full context. As a reminder, we simulate every game in this series and only control the recruiting and coaching strategies.

We pick up with Western Illinois in the first round of the 2028 NCAA tournament in Year 21 of Coach Rick’s tenure. But first, here’s a recap of everything that happened so far this season:

  • Coming off a historically dominant national championship run the previous season for our third title in program history, the Leathernecks entered the new year trying to go back-to-back for the first time. We returned four starters but lost standout wing Wilky Henry to the NBA. We begin the new season ranked No. 18 in the preseason polls.
  • We went 5-5 in the non-conference schedule before sweeping Summit League play once again. We then captured the Summit League tournament title to lock in our automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. We enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed at 26-5 on the year.
  • We recruited for four open scholarships. We landed our highest-rated recruit ever and first ever All-American with 6’6 power forward J.J. Bracy, who is ranked No. 24 overall and No. 2 at his position. We also got an early commitment from point guard Alexis Willingham, who is the No. 68 overall and No. 28 at his position. We have two more scholarships to recruit for in the offseason.

Read: Western Illinois, Year 21, 2027-2028


Here’s a look at our roster heading into the NCAA tournament:

IMG 4736 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

There’s a case to be made that this is our best roster ever. Last year’s tournament run is still fresh in everyone’s mind. It’s not just that we become the lowest-seed team to ever win the national championship as a No. 12 seed. It’s how we did it. Blowout after blowout after blowout, winning by an average margin of 27 points per game. Everyone from that squad is back with the exception of standout wing scorer Wilky Henry. Entering the tournament, I’m very confident we have what it takes to make a run at national title No. 4.

Unfortunately, our shaky regular season means we got another tough draw through the bracket. No. 8 seed Michigan is our first round opponent. Here’s a look at the Wolverines’ roster. Here’s how the two teams matchup:

Screen Shot 2020 09 06 at 11.06.13 AM - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

Michigan is only two years removed from winning the national championship. They have one of the country’s best players in 7-foot senior power forward W.C. Pinkalla. Our prize for getting past the Wolverines would be a date with No. 1 seed Xavier, who has an absolutely stacked roster. No. 4 seed Florida and No. 2 Clemson also look super formidable in our West region. This is going to be a difficult run, but after last year’s success I feel like we could beat anyone. If we win this thing again I’m starting a petition to face the Charlotte Bobcats.

This is the last dance for our senior power forward Allen Cunningham, a three-year starter and one of the most dependable players in program history. If he leads us to another title, Ham will have a strong case for the GOAT Leatherneck. Ham is joined by starting center Pat Giddens and sophomore backup center Kevin Brazzle, who are also both monsters. Our front court is going to have to carry us to a championship, because it remains a question of who becomes our go-to perimeter scoring threat. Sophomore shooting guard Mathew Alloway and junior wing Wilbur Ager will have to step up. This is also the final run for senior point guard Tron Whaley, who brings the size (6’4), outside shooting ability, and the cool name we’re looking for at the position.

We streamed this game on Twitch. As always, I’m not controlling Western Illinois; we’re watching a simulated game played by the computer. I’m not playing any of the games in this series. The game will start when you press play.

Let’s go!

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EhCLO NWkAE0Wdb - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

Win, 87-65! We’re onto the second round to face Xavier.

This one followed the same pattern of so many of our games during last year’s tournament run: competitive for the first half, only to see our Leathernecks run away with it after halftime.

I want to give a shout-out to Michigan’s star big man Pinkalla, who absolutely looked like the real deal. I gave him the Tim Duncan comp halfway through this game even before he started banking in jump shots. He was Michigan’s only offense for the majority of the game and made Cunningham look helpless at times defensively. Pinkalla finished with 24 points and nine rebounds on 11-of-14 shooting from the floor in only 29 minutes. He feels like one of the better opposing players we’ve faced in our 21 years at Western Illinois, so salute to him on the way out. Fortunately, our Leathernecks were just too good to let one player give us all that much trouble.

I love the way we shot the ball. Alloway got into a rhythm from deep, doing 3-for-3 from behind the arc to finish with a team-high 19 points. I also thought he helped key our defense, finishing with two steals and a block. He’s turning into a really good two-way wing. Here’s a highlight from reader Abby:

Cunningham was great, too. He had 11 of his 13 points in the first half, which was critical in helping keep us keep pace with Pinkalla’s scoring surge. Ham has always had a devastating inside-out game, and he showed off his touch by splashing two three-pointers early in the first half.

Here was his second triple of the day off a nice feed from Giddens.

Senior shooting guard Vitor Andrisevic also gave us great minutes off the bench, finishing with 15 points. Andrisevic, a former five-star international recruit out of Montenegro, has had the weakest development of any player in program history and will likely go down as our biggest recruiting bust ever. He’s still turned himself into a useful bench guard as a shooter now at an 86 overall. I’d like nothing more than to see him have a couple more moments throughout this tournament run.

I’d like to see a little more out of Tron and Ager, but in general I can’t complain about a 22-point NCAA tournament win. Bring on Xavier.

No. 9 Western Illinois vs. No. 1 Xavier, round of 32, 2028 NCAA tournament

Xavier is a worthy top seed. The Musketeers enter the game at 32-4 on the season and rated as a 99 overall. Here’s how the two teams matchup — it’s pretty even. Western Illinois and Xavier both have six players on the roster rated as at least a 90 overall.

Here’s a look at the Xavier roster:

IMG 4733 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

The thing that jumps out about Xavier is they don’t really have any size. They have zero centers on the roster and only one power forward, who happens to be 6’7. While that would seemingly play into our hands because we have such a great front court, I’m nervous about Xavier’s shooting and their ability to get into the passing lanes if they press. Small ball teams have given us problems in the past by turning us over on full court traps.

The ideal gameplan looks something like this:

  • Slow it down
  • Go inside to Ham, Giddens, Brazzle
  • Profit

If nothing else, we should crush on the offensive glass?

It’s been a *while* since we’ve had a stream game that didn’t end in a blowout victory for our Leathernecks. Here’s hoping for another one. Winner gets a very dangerous No. seed 4 Florida team in the Sweet 16. Gotta take care of business against Xavier first.

We streamed this game on Twitch. As always, I’m not controlling Western Illinois; we’re watching a simulated game played by the computer. I’m not playing any of the games in this series. The game will start when you press play, but if not go to the 1:17:00 mark. I’d also recommend clicking through for the full video to read the Twitch comments.

Let’s go!

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EhCZN2fWoAA0OHq - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

Loss, 90-60. Smoked. I am absolutely gutted to see our season end like this.

That was a really weird game, man. I can’t remember anything like that during the watch parties before. For one, Ham decided to stop wearing pants.

First of all, what? Also, I’m just going to say it: it was all downhill after Ham pulled his shorts up.

The first half was so low scoring. We were just shooting the ball horribly — 29 percent from the field and 1-of-8 from three — but we were able to hang in there by getting to the foul line and limiting turnovers. Both of those aspects completely fell apart in the second half, and so did we.

Just way, way, way too many turnovers. Tron Whaley did his best Angel Keita impression to finish with seven turnovers. Ham threw several mindless passes. It just felt like we were pressing the entire game, and once Xavier got off to a 7-0 run to start the second half, the deficit snowballed from there.

The numbers for our front court of Ham and Giddens in their final game are just downright demoralizing. They finished 8-of-30 combined from the floor. Neither Alloway or Ager could step up and fill Wilky Henry’s shoes as our go-to perimeter scorer. At the end of the day, we just couldn’t hit a shot.

Shooting 30.7 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three just isn’t going to cut it.

What a sad way to go out. We’re losing three great seniors in Cunningham, Giddens, and Tron, and also Vitor Andrisevic. Ham goes down as one of our very best players ever. We don’t win our third ever national championship without him. I’d put him down as our new $5 power forward and wouldn’t think twice about it. Tron and Giddens both had excellent careers too even with the bummer ending. Can’t say I’ll miss Vitor.

It’s going to be a very different team next season. The big question is whether or not Kevin Brazzle goes pro as a sophomore. He’s a projected first round pick and would leave a big hole in the middle for us next season if he decides to jump to the draft.

We’re headed into the offseason, but first we have to crown a winner in our bracket contest.

Bracket contest results

The Final Four looked like this: LSU, Xavier, Ole Miss, and BYU. BYU beat LSU in the national championship game.

We had about 120 people enter the bracket contest this year, so thanks to all who participated. You can find the leaderboard on Sean Vinsel’s Blog Team bracket app, which works on desktop and mobile. Here’s a look at the highest scores:

Screen Shot 2020 09 07 at 11.33.42 PM - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

Congrats to reader Justin on the win. He gets to create a five-star recruit that we’ll monitor throughout our dynasty.

Let’s get into the offseason.

Offseason

  • BYU wins the national title as a No. 5 seed. I’m saying that qualifies as a major upset considering only two people picked them to win it all in the bracket challenge.
  • Matt Boswell — our created player for the first ever winner of the bracket contest — ends his legendary career by being named a Second-Team All-American. Boswell averaged 24.4 points per game as a senior and helped Dayton reach the Sweet 16. He even posted back-to-back 32-point games in the tournament. He exits school with 2,583 career points. Every created character should hope to one day become as beloved as Boswell. Our second created player, Ben Remis from South Florida, also decided to turn pro as a junior.
  • Giddens, Cunningham, and Tron all get drafted. Brazzle stays! We’re going to have three new starters next year, but our roster should be loaded with talent with no apparent holes. I can’t wait.
  • Coach Rick gets a lifetime contract from Western Illinois! Finally. That means I have three coaching points now after earning two for our power forward recruit J.J. Bracy becoming our first five-star commitment in-season and also our first All-American.
  • I decide to put two points into discipline to boost me to a B- in the category. I then put one point in offense to boost me to an A overall.
  • North Carolina offers me their head coaching job. I’m turning it down.
  • We lost an assistant coach and hire Anil Valdez, who is pretty solid across the board but only has a B rating in teaching.

Recruiting

Recruiting is already off to a great start this season. We locked down two of our four scholarships in-season by signing:

  • 6’6 power forward J.J. Bracy, ranked No. 24 overall and No. 2 at his position
  • 6’2 point guard Alexis Willingham, ranked No. 68 overall and No. 28 at his position

We have offers out to two more players: No. 2 center Dick Copeland and No. 38 overall shooting guard Skip Clemmons. Would be a monster class if we can land both, maybe even the best in the country.

We land Copeland on the first day of the spring signing period. He’s only a three-star recruit, but he’s the highest rated center we’ve ever signed as No. 114 overall and No. 2 in his class.

Screen Shot 2020 09 08 at 8.46.03 AM - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

Copeland is short for a center at 6’8 and put up pretty mediocre AAU numbers, but I’m guessing he was regarded so highly for a reason. One possible guess: we scouted his potential as an A+ overall. That’s not always accurate, but it’s definitely exciting. Hopefully he grows a couple inches in school like most of players have.

Clemmons commits a couple weeks later. It’s pretty wild to think that, as the No. 38 overall recruit, he’s our sixth highest-rated recruit in program history.

Screen Shot 2020 09 08 at 8.48.55 AM - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

Two things stand out about Clemmons: his size and shooting. Look at that sparkling 47 percent three-point percentage. I’m thinking he’s big enough to switch to small forward if need be, which should give us some flexibility in recruiting next year.

I’m thrilled with this class. As I advance past the recruiting stage, it says we had the No. 5 class in the country this year!

Screen Shot 2020 09 08 at 8.44.39 AM - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

Easily our best recruiting haul ever, breaking our previous high water mark of the No. 9 class in the country.

Now it’s time to set our schedule for next year. I decide to go with this:

@ Illinois, @ Florida, @ Charlotte, vs. George Washington, @ North Carolina, @ Syracuse, @ St. John’s, @ USC, @ South Florida, @ Arkansas

Year 22

Here’s a first look at our roster for Year 22.

IMG 4822 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 21, continued

We’re starting off the season at No. 19 in the preseason polls. Not bad for a team with only two returning starters.

Our incoming freshman class looks great:

  • Bracy is an 81 overall with C potential, making him by far our highest-rated true freshman ever, per reader Evan’s Leathernecks Recruiting Database.
  • Willingham is a 76 overall with C potential and has already grown an inch to 6’3.
  • Clemmons is a 75 overall with C potential.
  • Copeland is a 75 overall with A potential. Best potential rating in program history.

The future is bright even after a disappointing tournament run last season.

Next season is going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to play through it while recruiting for one open scholarship and watching one regular season game together on Wednesday, Sept. 9. Here’s how to watch.

Watch Western Illinois Year 22 regular season play-through

What we’re watching: Western Illinois Year 22 regular season stream. We’ll watch one regular season game, recruit for four scholarships, and sim to the NCAA tournament.

How to watch: My Twitch channel

Date: Wednesday, Sept, 9

Tip-off time: 8:30 p.m. ET // 7:30 p.m. CT.

I hope to see you there. Go ‘Necks.

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