Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

IMG 5158.0 - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

Western Illinois enters the Final Four looking for its fourth national championship in our College Hoops 2K8 sim.

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 2030 NCAA tournament. But first, here’s a recap of everything that happened this season.

  • Last season ended in a heartbreaker for Western Illinois: we lost in the national championship game in the final seconds, and then saw our three best juniors leave early for the NBA draft. We would begin the new season with only one returning starter.
  • We struggled in the non-conference schedule, losing seven games before entering Summit League play. We again swept the conference and won the conference tournament, earning a No. 13 seed to the big dance.
  • We beat No. 4 seed USC, 83-76, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. We defeated No. 5 seed Pepperdine, 90-86, in the round of 32. In the Sweet 16, we knocked off No. 8 seed Ole Miss, 106-85. In the Elite Eight, we shocked No. 2 seed UConn, 91-82, to punch our ticket the Final Four. Read the full recap of our road to the Final Four here.
  • We recruited for four scholarships and are poised to land two recruits on the first day of the early signing period.

Read: Western Illinois, Year 23, 2029-2030

Read: The start of Western Illinois’ NCAA tournament run in Year 23, continued


Here’s a look at our roster heading into the Final Four:

IMG 5136 - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

We aren’t supposed to be here. That’s the plain truth of the matter. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year after we suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Kansas in the final minute of the national championship game last year, and then saw our three best juniors all decide to turn pro early. This team only has one senior and one returning starter — power forward LF Neal, a skinny, jumping-jack big man who has shined on the glass but rarely showed the ability to be a takeover scorer.

We needed new stars this year, and we found them. The breakout performer of our tournament run has been Jitim Dupree. The 6’10 junior wing put up 35 points in the second round win over Pepperdine, and 30 points against a powerful UConn team in the Elite Eight. Artie Snipes, all 7’1, 308 pounds of him, replaced starting center Kevin Brazzle after he left for the NBA draft, and has become a projected top pick himself. Point guard Koko Reeves is the smallest player in program history at just 6-foot, but he’s given us some knockdown outside shooting while taking care of the ball at the point guard spot.

I just wanted to beat No. 4 seed USC in the first round of this tournament. When we did that, I was thrilled. A tight win against Pepperdine next round powered by Dupree’s versatile scoring proved to me this team was legit. Then we blew out Ole Miss, and somehow upset UConn to punch our ticket to the Final Four. It’s the sixth Final Four appearance in program history, and the first time we’ve ever gotten this far in back-to-back years. As a No. 13 seed, we’re also the lowest seeded team to reach the Final Four in NCAA tournament history.

Our opponent is another Cinderella: No. 11 seed UNLV. Here’s a look at the Runnin’ Rebels roster. This is how the two teams matchup:

IMG 5158 - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

UNLV enters as a 97 overall. On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 seed George Washington defeated No. 7 seed Dayton. We beat the Colonials in the Final Four last year, too, and would love nothing more than to get another crack at them with a national title on the line.

We’ve won the national championship in Year 8, Year 13, and Year 20 of my tenure in Macomb. Now in Year 23, we’re trying to win our most unlikely championship yet. No other program has won more than two championships during our sim. We streamed this game on Twitch on Thursday night. As a reminder: we’re watching a simulated game; I’m not controlling Western Illinois.

No one thought we’d be here; we have nothing to lose. A spot in the national title game on the line. Let’s go!

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EjSY87QWAAEeAiB - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

Win, 91-90. Ohhhhhhhh, my gosh. That was very nearly an epic collapse by us, but we survive on one great offensive rebound and a little bit of luck on the other end. That could have been catastrophic.

This was the ultimate tale of two halves. The first half was the Edwin Wolfe show. The former five-star JUCO recruit is the lowest-rated starter we’ve had in years, but he played like a superstar in the first half. Wolfe went 6-for-6 from three-point range and scored 22 points in the opening 20 minutes. He made it 7-for-7 from deep shortly into the second half, but then wouldn’t score again.

Can I get some AWOOOOOs in the chat?

For most of the second half, it looked like we were going to turn this game into a blowout. When freshman power forward forward J.J. Bracy hit a baseline jumper with 10:40 left, we led by 18 points. That’s when the Running’ Rebels started their run. There was just under two minutes left when UNLV tied the game. They took their first lead of the game with 36 seconds left.

The last minute of this game was incredibly intense. Here are the final few possessions.

UNLV’s three-pointer put them up one. We had one possession left with the shot clock identical to the game clock. We found Dupree for a three-pointer, he missed, but LF Neal grabbed the offensive rebound and laid it back in. We were up one with six seconds left as UNLV got one last look: a jumper from their center Will Mills, which rimmed out.

In the matter of 10 seconds, we went from the worst collapse in program history to playing in the national title game. I still can’t believe we survived.

Why couldn’t we get the ball to Wolfe in the second half after his amazing first half? Why did Dupree — clearly our best player on this tournament run — finish tied for the fewest field goal attempts among the starters? How did Snipes foul out in only 22 minutes?

In many ways, this game leaves more questions than answers. But hey: we’re playing for the national championship. Our opponent in the national title game is No. 1 seed George Washington.

No. 13 seed Western Illinois vs. No. 1 seed George Washington, national championship game, 2030 NCAA tournament

We’re back in the national championship game one year after we lost to Kansas in the final minute on this very stage. I never thought we’d be back, but here we are. We’ve come too far to let another title slip through our finger tips.

George Washington enters the game as a 96 overall, two points lower than us. This is no normal No. 1 seed: every player listed on the front page of GW’s roster is a guard. We’re about to face the small ball attack the likes of which we’ve never seen:

IMG 5101 - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

GW does start a pair freshmen at the four and five respectively who are rated in the high 70s. But for the majority of the game, the Colonials are going to spread the floor with guards, find drive-and-kick opportunities, and stretch our defense as thin as possible with so much space to cover.

I know we can beat this team, but we’re going to need Snipes and Neal to ball out. This will be their last game in a Leathernecks uniform either way. Might as well go out as a champion.

We streamed this game on Twitch. Click through on the Twitch video to watch it with commentary from the fans. Our fourth national championship is hanging in the balance. Let’s go!

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EjSnQqGWsAAc rZ - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

WIN, 104-88. FOR THE FOURTH TIME IN THE LAST 23 YEARS, THE WESTERN ILLINOIS LEATHERNECKS ARE NATIONAL CHAMPIONS!

Oh my, that was SO much closer than the final score would indicate. They had a double-digit lead in the first half before we clawed back off the strength of our full court press to take a five-point advantage going into halftime. The second half was an all-out slugfest, and GW wasn’t going away. The Colonials led by three with about 6:30 left when I decided to put in my closing lineup, inserting freshman guard Alexis Willingham for Wolfe and then rolling with the rest of the starters. From then on, we out-scored GW 25-6 to end the game.

The game really turned in the last three minutes. We were up three when Jimit Dupree ripped a catch-and-shoot three-pointer to extend our lead to six. Dupree then stole the inbounds pass off our full court pressure, and scored later in the possession on a baseline cut off a beautiful feed from Koko Reeves. Reeves then stole the next inbounds pass, tried to throw an ally-oop to himself (???), recovered and laid it in.

Our three-point lead became a 10-point lead in a matter of seconds. That’s all we needed to finish off the win.

Jitim Dupree was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, the perfect cap to an all-time tournament run. Dupree carried us all night in the national title game, finishing with 34 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, and two steals on 12-of-22 shooting from the field and 6-of-12 shooting from three. He finished with 30 or more points three times in our six-game tournament run. If this wasn’t the greatest individual performance throughout an NCAA tournament in program history, it was damn close.

Dupree may have been the star both in this game and throughout the tournament, but for real: this was a true team effort the entire way. Look at Koko Reeves finish with a double-double of 13 points and 12 assists. Snipes (17 points) gave us a consistent inside scoring presence all night. LF Neal only shot 3-for-12 from the field, but dominated the glass (18 rebounds), and still grinded his way to a double-double.

Willingham was also incredible in the clutch, scoring on three straight possessions late — a three, a transition layup, and two free throws — after we decided to close the game with him. The future is bright, but we’re going to stay in the present to celebrate this one a little more.

This is the most shocking championship run of our simulation. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Losing your three best juniors from the year before will do that to any program. We looked shaky all season. I was honestly so relieved when we won the conference tournament to punch our automatic ticket to the dance. If there was ever a year to miss the tournament, it felt like this was going to be it.

I really just wanted to beat No. 4 seed USC in the first round. That game was close as hell, but we pulled it out. From then on, our team came together to play the basketball of their lives.

Reader Abby was kind enough to put together a “One Shining Moment” video. This one’s for you, Necks Nation.

It’s time to hang another banner. No. 4!

Screen Shot 2020 10 02 at 3.34.41 PM - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

We celebrated long into the night. Then we got back to work. We had four scholarships to fill this offseason. There’s no days off when you’re a national championship-level program.

Offseason

  • Western Illinois is your 2030 NCAA tournament champions. Hell yeah. Our fourth title in 23 years. No other program has more than two.
  • Snipes leaves early for the NBA, as expected. Neal graduates and is also drafted. Here’s the biggest news of the offseason so far: Jitim Dupree is back. Projected as a second round pick, Dupree will return for his senior year. It is so on in Year 24. Back-to-back anyone?
  • Coach Rick through 23 seasons at Western Illinois: 622-145 overall record with four national championships at age 48. I had one coaching point, which I put it Discipline to improve to a B rating.
  • I was offered jobs by Kansas, Wisconsin, and more, but turned them down. We’re here to stay.
  • We lose an assistant coach and hire my guy T. Buckendahl — who has an A- teaching rating, but is a D in offense. That’s okay because our other assistant coach has an A- offensive rating.

Recruiting

We have four open scholarships to recruit for, but appear poised to land two players on the first day of the spring signing period.

It happens: Cecil Sinville and Nic Cummings are Leathernecks:

Screen Shot 2020 10 04 at 9.13.48 AM - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued
Screen Shot 2020 10 04 at 9.14.03 AM - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

Sinville is one of the best recruits we’ve ever landed: No. 27 overall and the No. 1 center in the class. Think of all the great centers we’ve had at Western Illinois, and then considered we’ve never landed the No. 1 player at the position or a center who ranked in the top-100 as a recruit. We have the Chicago native scouted at A+ potential, which isn’t always accurate but it sure is exciting.

Cummings looks very solid too as another big wing with some shooting ability. How his three-point stroke develops will probably make or break his career, but in a lot of ways he checks the boxes we’re looking for out of a small forward.

I also have scholarship offers out to Uche Lett (No. 4 overall center) and D.C. Collier, a point guard ranked No. 67 overall. We’re going to need some good luck to land either because both are more interested in other schools.

It doesn’t happen: Lett commits to Xavier, and Collier commits to UNC. We’re scrambling to find other players to offer. We decide on Goran Kent, a 6’4 point guard ranked No. 90 overall, and five-star JUCO center Timothy Logie. We recruit both until the very end. Kent signs, and Logie does not. It will be very interesting to see where Kent comes in at because we don’t have a scouting rating for his potential and he didn’t play AAU.

We’ll roll over that extra scholarship to next season. We have a guard, a wing, and a center in this class. Not perfect, but not terrible either.

Now it’s time to make our schedule for next season. We go with this:

@ Indiana, @ South Florida, @ Miami (OH), vs. Michigan, vs. DePaul, @ Illinois, @ Dayton, @ Iowa, @ Seton Hall, @ Kentucky

Year 24

Here’s the first look at our roster for Year 24:

IMG 5179 - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

Sinville is going to play as a true freshman because we don’t have another backup big man. He comes in at a 75 overall with A- potential. Cummings looks solid as a 74 overall with B- potential. Kent looks not great as a 71 overall with C potential, but he’s already grown an inch to 6’5.

We’re going to stream the regular season of Year 24 on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET on Twitch. We have five scholarships to recruit for, so it’s going to be a fun season. Here’s how you can watch it.

How to watch Western Illinois in Year 24

What we’re watching: Western Illinois Year 24 regular season stream. We’ll watch one regular season game, recruit for five scholarships, and sim to the NCAA tournament.

How to watch: My Twitch channel

Date: Wednesday, Oct. 7

Tip-off time: 8:30 p.m. ET

I hope to see you there. Some news on the way out:

  • Reader Abby wins the bracket contest. She’ll get to create a player ahead of next season. You can check out the full standings of the bracket contest on Sean’s app. Thanks to everyone who entered.
  • Here’s a wonderful piece on our run to the Final Four from our beater writer Matthew Morrow.
  • Our fan-started Instagram account @leathernecks_nation is going to be holding a trivia contest. Winner gets to create a character in our simulation.
  • Reader Thanh is putting out another book on our national championship season in 2020. Buy it here. Thanh also wrote a book on the journey to our first championship. Support his work!
  • A couple great pieces on our Reddit page lately from reader Kyle: on the return of Allen Cunningham, and the latest on Sam’s Deli.
  • I’m still crying laughing from this Wilky Henry photoshop. Join the Reddit page!
wilky - Western Illinois’ Final Four run in Year 23, continued

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I’ll see you Wednesday on Twitch for Year 24. ‘Go Necks.

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