The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

matchupuconn.5 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

The Leathernecks enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed with an impossibly tough draw.

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 the Leathernecks in the first round of the 2029 NCAA tournament, but first here’s a recap of everything that’s happened so far this season.

  • Coming off a disappointing loss in the round of 32 to No. 1 seed Xavier last season, the Leathernecks enter the new year ranked No. 19 in the preseason polls. We have three new starters.
  • We went 6-5 in the non-conference schedule before sweeping the Summit League and winning the conference tournament once again. We earned a No. 11 seed to the NCAA tournament, entering at 27-5 overall.
  • We recruited for one scholarship, but didn’t land anyone yet.

Read: Western Illinois, Year 22, 2028-2029


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

roster22 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

No one can doubt the overall talent level of this roster. We’re rated as a 100 overall for a reason — we have a great combination of experienced top-end talent plus depth. It is fair to wonder who are takeover scorer is going to be, though.

I have full confidence in Kevin Brazzle, the 7’2 junior center and projected top pick in the NBA draft. He’s put up numbers all year and figures to give a consistent scorer and rebounder inside. Who steps up on the perimeter is a better question. Wilbur Ager, our lone senior, has had a good career thus far, but he’s never had to be the man in the shadow of Allen Cunningham and others. Now we need him to play like a star. Does Ager have a Wilky Henry-like run in him? The spotlight is also waiting for Mathew Alloway, now a junior and a starter every year he’s been eligible. Alloway has the size (6’7), he has the shooting, and he brings it defensively. We’ve had him circled as a future star for years. The future is here.

Point guard Jamie Burke and power forward L.F. Neal, both first-year starters as juniors, are less accomplished but still talented. Our bench has a 300-pound center in Artie Snipes, a 6’10 wing in Jitim Dupree, and our best three-point shooter in 6-foot guard Koko Reeves. We’re good enough to lean on a star-by-committee approach, but someone is going to have to step up against an incredibly formidable UConn team.

The Huskies have been killer throughout this sim, one of only four programs to win two titles (the others: Louisville, Maryland, UCLA) while we have three. UConn knocked us out in the Elite Eight back in Year 18. They have a loaded roster once again. Both teams enter the game rated as a 100 overall:

matchup - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

Maryland is likely waiting in the round of 32 and top-seed Xavier is likely waiting in the Sweet 16. Our Leathernecks are used to getting shafted by the committee, and it happened in a major way this year. This might be our toughest draw ever.

We watched this game on Twitch together on Sunday night. As always, I’m not controlling Western Illinois during the game, we’re watching a simulated game. Unfortunately the video transfer to YouTube is taking forever and still isn’t fully uploaded even after 12+ hours. I’ll add videos in this post when it’s complete.

Let’s go!

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IMG 4970 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

Win, 103-89! Second half team!

This was getting dark for a minute there. Led by my long-lost relative Donny O’Donnell (36 points), UConn opened up a double digit lead late in the first half. That’s when I switched us into a 1-2-1-1 zone full court press defense. We started forcing turnovers, which led to easy offense, which led to us taking control of the game. We dropped 65 damn points in the second half, which is just amazing.

I loved what I saw out of Alloway, finishing with 19 points on 3-of-3 shooting from three-point range. Ager struggled to shoot the ball from the outside (1-of-5 from three) but still found a way score 17 points and also had four steals.

Our front court gave us a great complement next to our guards. Neal played the game of his life: 20 points, 11 rebounds, and five stocks. He’s had a quiet career so far but we don’t win that game without him. Brazzle continues to be the picture of consistency by going off for another fat double-double of 17 points and 16 rebounds.

Less good: point guard Jamie Burke, who finished with eight turnovers turnovers and 0-of-4 shooting from three.

We absolutely would have lost this game without the switch to a full court press defense. The final scoreboard says we won by 14, but man does it feel like that’s a game we easily could have lost. Even still, it feels great to beat UConn in the tournament. Unfortunately, it isn’t getting any easier from here.

Our next opponent in the next our is No. 3 seed Maryland, who beat No. 14 Samford in their opening game.

No. 11 seed Western Illinois vs. No. 3 seed Maryland, round of 32, 2029 NCAA tournament

Maryland has been one of the better programs in the country throughout this sim. Like UConn, the Terps have two national championships while consistently being a factor late in the tournament.

Maryland enters the game as a 100 overall — the same rating as us. Here’s a look at their roster:

IMG 4904 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

You can see that Maryland doesn’t have a ton of size, with no one taller than 6’7 listed on the first page of the roster. In a lot of ways, this Terps roster reminds me of the Xavier team that knocked us out in the round of 32 last year: lots of dynamic guards and wings who can knock down shots. Like us, they have six players rated in the 90s.

Let’s cut down on the turnovers, defend the three-point line, and feed Brazzle inside when we have the ball. We’re going to need to play better than we did against UConn to win this game.

We watched this game on Twitch on Sunday night. Once again: it’s a simulated game; I’m not controlling Western Illinois on the court.

This group knows the pain of losing in the round of 32 because it happened to us last year. A win here and we likely get a rematch against Xavier, who knocked us out last season. We want a rematch. Let’s go!

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IMG 4971 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

Win, 95-91! We juuust had enough to hang on there in the second half.

We were in control for most of that game and I was feeling pretty good about it. We took a nine-point lead into the half on a Wilbur Ager tip-in. We pushed that lead to 16 points early in the second half, but credit Maryland for refusing to go away. The Terps went on a run in the last five minutes and hit a three-pointer with 17.5 seconds left to make it a three-point game. It was a two-point game with 4.5 seconds left when Jamie Burke missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at the foul line. Fortunately, Alloway grabbed the offensive rebound and iced the win at the line.

While I didn’t switch to a full court press defense in this one, we actually had more steals (12) than we did vs. UConn (10). I thought our defense set the tone once again. It had to be that way considering we couldn’t get a good look from behind the arc all night. Maryland hit 10 more three-pointers than us — 13 to three — but we were able to stay alive by attempting three times as many free throws. It wasn’t a pretty offensive performance for us, but it was enough to get the win.

Brazzle was a monster and really does feel like the trump card during this tournament run. It is so nice to have a 7’2 center we can consistently go to when we need a bucket. He was excellent to finish with 27 points and 14 rebounds on 13-of-20 shooting from the field. That performances locks him in as a top-five center in program history, I think. We lose without him because no one really got going.

Alloway, Ager, and Neal were all solid but unspectacular. Maryland’s star wing Ross Pasco ran all over us, going off for 33 points on seven made threes. That’s two wings putting up massive individual scoring games on us so far. Something to monitor.

Ager still made big plays when we needed him to.

I am officially worried about Burke at this point. We’ve had so many subpar point guards over the years and there’s no way to really know until you see them out there. Burke was a very solid four-star recruit at No. 71 overall in his class — the type of player we’d take every time. He has succumb to the same issues as Armien Amous and Angel Keita before him though: too many turnover. After eight turnovers against UConn, he had five or six this game. We need to take better care of the ball.

As we sim to the next week, we have some shocking news: No. 7 seed Richmond stunned top-seeded Xavier in the round of 32! That means we face the Spiders with an Elite Eight trip on the line!

No. 11 Western Illinois vs. No. 7 Richmond, Sweet 16, 2029 NCAA tournament

Every deep NCAA tournament run requires at least a little bit of luck, and there’s no doubt we got it in a big way with this matchup. Xavier appeared to have the most players rated in the 90s — seven — of any team in the tournament this year. They also demolished us on this stage last year. I am feeling so much more confident against Richmond.

How the hell did the Spiders beat Xavier? Xavier was a 100 overall and Richmond is a 91 overall. Here’s a look at Richmond’s roster, with only one player rated in the 90s.

IMG 4906 2 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

This is a game we should win, but I’m sure Xavier thought that, too. One win away from the Elite Eight, let’s get it.

We also watched this game on Twitch on Sunday night, the first time we’ve ever streamed three games on the same night. Why stop now? Standard disclaimer goes here: I’m not controlling WIU, we’re watching a simulated game.

Let’s go!

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IMG 4972 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

Win, 136-71. Absolute domination out of our ‘Necks. We’re going to the Elite Eight!

This was a beatdown from the opening tip. We got out to a 10-point lead in the first seven minutes and never looked back. We were up 30 by halftime and had already pulled our starters.

First things first: shout-out to our embattled point guard Jamie Burke. who finished with an exquisite line of 12 points, 11 assists, zero turnovers. He also hit 4-of-6 shots from three-point range. Exactly what we want out of our point guards. Just a textbook great PG performance.

Ager was also awesome to finish with 19 points. He was super aggressive from the jump and it looked like he knew no one on Richmond could match his physicality. That was tight. Alloway also played an efficient and wonderful game with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, all in the first half I think.

How about our defense? We had 17 steals, a new high for this tournament run. Unreal.

Looking back through the records, that’s our biggest win ever. 65-point win! The bench also beat Richmond by 30 in the second half. Just ridiculous.

I thought the future of the program was on full display as the bench got some run with a big lead. Wow, were they great. Jitim Dupre: 22 points, 10 rebounds, four steals, three makes from deep. Edwin Wolfe led us in scoring!?! I never would have guessed. The former five-star JUCO recruit is now a RS sophomore and rated an 80 overall. That’s disappointing by our standards, but he played so much better than his ratings in this game. Wolfe finished with 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field and 6-of-12 shooting from three.

Artie Snipes also deserves a shout-out with 20 points off the bench. He’ll be our starting center once Brazzle bounces to the draft after this year and it feels like we won’t be losing much at center with him in the lineup.

That sets up a game vs. No. 8 seed Tennessee. The Vols stunned No. 1 seed Stanford in the round of 32 and then took out defending national champs BYU in the Sweet 16 to force their way into the Elite Eight. If you had this game on your bracket, more power to you.

No. 11 seed Western Illinois vs. No. 8 seed Tennessee, Elite Eight, 2029 NCAA tournament

The Elite Eight has been a nightmare round for us in the past — most memorably when we saw three straight seasons end in this round from Year 16, Year 17, and Year 18. The allure of the Final Four is so strong that guys start to get tense. You can’t really blame them, but we need to be better today.

Tennessee looks solid but not overwhelming from a talent perspective. I think this is the first time we’ve ever played them? Here’s a look at the Vols’ roster:

IMG 4896 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

Guess what? We playing this game out too. A four-game stream. Win or lose, this will be our last game of the night.

I’m not controlling WIU, but you know that by now.

Final Four on the line. Let’s goOoOoOoO!

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IMG 4973 - The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 22, continued

Win, 100-92! We’re going to the Final Four for the fifth time in program history, and we will be looking for our fourth national title once we get there.

Ohhhhh my gosh, that was close. The second half felt as tense as any game we’ve ever played in this dynasty. Tennessee refused to go away, hitting threes, getting and-ones, forcing steals — they really made us work for it. Shot of the night goes to our senior, Wilbur Ager. With our Leathernecks up two points with 18 seconds left and about five seconds separating the shot clock from the game clock, Ager fired a catch-and-shoot three-pointer that was cash to seal the win.

I was so nervous when he shot this, and elated when it went in.

What a shot. If he misses, the Vols have the ball and a chance to win the game on the last possession. Instead, it goes in, Ager is the hero, and we advance to the Final Four. Wow.

I felt like Nick Nurse in this game: I was riding my starters until the very end. All of them were excellent. Burke went all 40 minutes and only scored one point, but he finished with 13 assists and limited his turnovers. Alloway played like a flat-out star with 28 points on 12-of-17 shooting. Ager hit a very nice 6-of-9 shots from deep. Brazzle had another ridiculous double-double with 25 points and 15 rebounds.

L.F. Neal also made two super tough field goals in crunch-time to help seal the win:

Unreal. I never thought this team would make the Final Four, not after losing three starters and potentially the GOAT Leatherneck in Allen Cunningham. I thought our tournament draw was far too difficult for a run like this. I’m so happy I was wrong.

We’ve been to the Final Four four other times. Three times we won the national title. Let’s go back banner No. 4.

Our opponent in the Final Four is No. 1 seed George Washington. GW has a created player at center in former bracket contest runner-up Steven Frye. We made Frye as a three-star recruit back in the day but he’s really developed into a great player. Frye vs. Brazzle will be a signature matchup inside. GW is rated as a 98 overall, so this won’t be easy.

We’re going to stream this game on Wednesday, September 16 at 8:30 p.m. ET on Twitch. Here’s how you can watch the game:

How to watch Western Illinois vs. George Washington in the 2029 Final Four

Game: No. 11 seed Western Illinois vs. No. 1 seed George Washington, Final Four, 2029 NCAA tournament

How to watch: My Twitch channel

Date: Wednesday, Sept. 16

Tip-off time: 8:30 p.m. ET // 7:30 p.m. CT. The stream will start a little earlier.

If we win: The national championship game against the winner of No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 9 USC will follow immediately after.

What about the bracket contest?

Bracket contest results are up on Sean’s app — which works on desktop and mobile. Someone named Doop is currently winning. Way to go, Doop. Thanks to Sean again for running the bracket contest — follow Sean on Twitter at @hoopsinsight.

I’ll see you Wednesday night. Let’s hang banner No. 4.

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