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We took the worst college basketball program ever to the NCAA tournament in a simulated video game

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Western Illinois’ quest for a college basketball national championship in ‘College Hoops 2K8’ turns up in Year 4 and Year 5.

Welcome back to Western Illinois’ chase for a national championship in College Hoops 2K8. We introduced the idea and simmed through the first season in the opening installment of this series, then played through Year 2 and Year 3 in the second chapter. Here’s a recap of everything that happened in the last post.

  • Year 2 was a disaster on the court — 10-18 overall and a dead-last finish in the Summit League. The saving grace was a terrific four-man recruiting class headlined by three-star shooting guards Wilbur Messy and Tracy Hehn.
  • Year 3 was incredible. Western Illinois finished 23-9 overall, won an absolute thriller in the Summit League tournament championship game, and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
  • Took a No. 13 seed into the big dance against Florida, got blown out.
  • Signed two promising recruits when the season ended, 6’4 point guard Giovanni Nelke and center Deke Van, both coveted three-stars.

Let’s look at the roster again heading into Year 4:

This is the first incoming recruiting class I’ll have the luxury of redshirting because I finally have enough depth throughout the roster. Both Nelke (who has already grown an inch to 6’5) and Van are sitting the year, and look really promising long-term with C+ potential.

We’re going with a tight eight-man rotation this year (we had been playing nine before this season) and finally have a rotation with only players I recruited. Apologies to long-time holdover SG No. 23, who will be relegated to garbage time this season.

Western Illinois is ranked 83 overall. Next best team in the Summit League is Oral Roberts at 78. This season is conference-tournament-title-or-bust all the way.

I have two scholarships available heading into the season. Going to try to something new this year and recruit junior college players. This serves two purposes:

  • Getting players on the same timeline as Nelke and Van
  • Two of the goals I have to hit to get a coaching attribute point are “sign a four-star recruit” and “sign a five-star recruit.” It’s going to be easier to get guys rated that highly at the JUCO level.

I offer two five-star JUCOs on the first week. Point guard Damon Hendriks from Simi Valley, California, and power forward Dawud Byfield out of Los Angeles.

Hendricks’ top priority is reveals itself to be “playing at a big program,” which doesn’t bode well for Western Illinois. I’m still sticking with him. Byfield loves Stanford, but they haven’t offered yet.

I actually have a real non-conference schedule this year. My first game is against Colorado.

Big win, 73-69.

Sophomore shooting guard Tracy Hehn pops off for 18 points, while the starting front court of Bud Richards and Ferdinand Thompson each drop 16 points in the win. Great omen for the rest of this season. Let the rest of America know: the Leathernecks are ready.

Well, shit, maybe not: we lose to Sacramento State in the next game. My team shoots only 1-for-14 from three. Next up is a game with Washington — rated as a 93 overall. We take a 73-67 loss. Another terrible shooting night, 24-of-63 from the field and 5-of-23 from three.

Here’s a rundown of the next month or so:

  • Blow out a solid Troy team (82 overall), 84-57, with six players in double-figures. Next up: 16-point win over McNeese State.
  • Beat Montana State, 88-50. Bud Richards goes off for 26 points and six blocks on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and 2-for-2 from three. Then crush North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
  • Lose a heartbreaker to Creighton, 64-63, then get a win against Wichita State, 86-74. Richards hangs 21 points and three blocks on the Shockers. We lose by one to UW-Milwaukee the next game (Richards: 19 points, six rebounds, and five stocks), then beat UT-San Antonio by six (Richards: 24 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocks). My guy is having the breakout junior season we’ve been waiting for.

Next up is my first game vs. a ranked team: No. 24 Iowa State, a 92 overall. BUT THE CYCLONES ARE GOING DOWN.

That’s a big win. Ugly game offensively (28-of-63 from field, 5-of-19 from three, 8-of-18 from the foul line) but we gut it out. We lose to Oral Roberts in a conference game next, 79-76, to fall to 11-5 overall.

Next five games: four wins followed by a loss to IUPUI. Rematch against Oral Roberts is next: I get blown out, 101-76. Holy shit. That’s the low point of the season. They score 56 on us in the second half, which just isn’t going to cut it. We go 5-1 over the final six games, with our only loss is to Southern Utah.

At 21-8 overall and 14-4 in conference, we win the regular-season Summit League title and head into the conference tournament as the top seed. The in-season recruiting period is also over, with Hendriks looking like a safe bet to sign, and Byfield likely coming if his leading school — Stanford — is caught without an open roster spot in the spring. I’ve been recruiting a three-star small forward as a backup if I lose out on Byfield.

Before advancing to the conference tournament, I look at the roster again. I suddenly have three players (Richards, Hehn, and Messy) rated in the 80s now. That teaching boost is starting to pay off.

Summit League tournament

We’re opening the tournament with South Dakota State, the same team I needed an overtime thriller to beat in the title game last year. Things are easier this time: Leathernecks win, 83-56. Richards: 21 points. Wiedemann: 19 points.

Next up is Oral Roberts, who has already beaten me twice this year and smoked me by 25 last time I played them.

I really shouldn’t be so worried for this, but ....

Jesus. 89-77 loss. I really just allowed Oral Roberts to score 54 second half points in an elimination game.

We’re 22-9 overall, but it’s a disappointing season without a tournament berth. But just when I think the season is over .... Western Illinois gets chosen for the NIT, with a first-round matchup against Clemson.

NIT

Clemson is 19-12 overall, but they’re damn good: rated as a 93 overall. I don’t have a great feeling about this.

Lose, 86-81. Season over. We end the year 22-10. Maryland wins the title.

OH YEAH: Richards wins Summit League Player of the Year. That gets me a coaching attribute point.

I have three points to improve my coach. I give one each in offense, defense, and teaching. I get offered the Idaho job and turn it down. I also overhaul my assistant coaches and find a gem in Danny O’Sullivan, who is A- at teaching and C+ at scouting. He’s a C- in offense, but we’ll live with it.

Now, it’s time to lock up my recruits. Hendriks — a 6-foot point guard — signs after the second week, giving the program its first-ever five-star recruit as a JUCO player. When Stanford drops out for Byfield the next week, I land both of my targets.

With my first recruiting class set to be seniors in the upcoming season, I’m loading up the non-con schedule for Year 5. I’m opening the year with Illinois, and also schedule DePaul.

This is the last ride for Bud Richards, Marvin Cisse, Ferdinand Thompson, and Andre Wiedemann. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.

Year 5

Here’s a first look at the roster.

Wow, new arrival Hendriks is a 77 overall. He’s my fifth-best player immediately, but I still decide to redshirt him given my depth at guard. He’s going to be ridiculously good after four years. Byfield also looks solid as a 72 overall with B- potential. I redshirt him, too.

Nelke has grown to 6’6 now. I’m changing him to shooting guard, where he goes up three points to 77 overall as a redshirt freshman. We’ll be going with a 10-man rotation this year, with Waller and Ward rounding out the bench.

Also, I just noticed I have five California guys on this roster, and still no local kids. Chicago Public League coaches are sarcastically calling me “Ricky California.”

We’re rated 87 overall heading into the year and are clearly the favorites in the Summit — Southern Utah is the next best team at 74. No excuses this year.

This is going to be a huge season for recruiting, too

In addition to this being the best team I’ve had yet at Western Illinois, I also have five scholarships to fill. My first thought for recruiting: I need to fill out my starting lineup of the immediate future with a JUCO forward. I already have two guards (Nelke, Hendricks) and two bigs (Byfield, Van) who will all be redshirt sophomores next year, just need one more guy on their timeline to finish out that starting five. The ideal haul for this season would be one five-star JUCO wing paired with four top-150-rated high school seniors.

This five-man class is going to seriously shape the future of the program, but it also won’t be easy given how few recruiting points I have at a school as small as WIU (I covered this in the introduction). Here are my offers on the first day you can do it:

  • Dane Janiszewski, small forward, five-star JUCO freshman
  • Burton Ballinger, center, No. 214 (No. 15 C)
  • Alberto Tangara, small forward, No. 165 (No. 35 SF)
  • Hugh Spong, point guard, No. 181 (No. 56 PG)
  • Darell Hicks, power forward, No. 136 (No. 26)

The stakes are at an all-time high in every possible way this year. I think that calls for a press conference.

Coach Rick press conference

Alright, it’s time to start this shit.

First game: at Illinois

There would be no better way to open the biggest season in program history than by beating the Illini in Champaign. We want to show the rest of the state that the Leathernecks are the new premier basketball program in Illinois.

Unfortunately that does not happen.

The offense just totally dried up, and we could not defend the perimeter. They had one guy hit 10 threes! I actually watched this game, but there are in-game highlights coming later in the season (spoiler alert), so I will spare Leatherneck Nation the pain of watching the Illini smoke me.

We play in a tournament the next week and go 2-1, but lose to Northern Illinois. Turns out we might not even be the premier directional basketball program in Illinois.

Then comes the recruiting bloodbath. Janiszewski is offered by FIU, Hicks is offered by Green Bay-Wisconsin, Tangara is offered by North Florida, Sprong gets a Robert Morris offer. I drop all over them and completely redo my board.

I do have a big lead for Ballinger, and convince him to sign at the end of the in-season recruiting period. This is the first fall recruit I’ve had Western Illinois — great grab as a top-15 center who averages a double-double and makes a serious impact defensively.

We beat Dayton the next game, 87-81, behind big games from Richards and Thompson. Here’s where I’m at with recruiting:

  • I have an offer out to Earnest Robertson, a four-star point guard from Los Angeles ranked No. 51 overall and No. 21 at his position. Obviously, this would be the biggest recruit in program history. UCLA and Oregon lead for Robertson, but his recruitment has a long way to go and I’m still his only offer.
  • I extend an offer to five-star shooting guard Arvydas Kavaliauskas out of Lithuania. I also offer Josiah Taybron, a 6’8 small forward ranked No. 109 overall (No. 21 at his position).
  • My final offer goes to Ira Willis, 6’7 power forward out of Queens, ranked No. 82 overall and No. 17 at his position.

I’m still chasing high upside guys over lower ranked prospects who I might have a better chance with. I’m hoping I can land one or two of these highly-ranked guys and still have some decent players left to choose from in the spring to fill out my class.

DePaul game is next. They’re an 89 overall, I’m an 88. This would be a huge win — and I get it, 63-47.

Like everyone says: Coach Rick, defensive mastermind. We beat UMBC, 87-54, with all five starters in double-figures the next game, then pound Saint Louis (Richards: 24 points and seven rebounds; Hehn: 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from three).

My Leathernecks are 7-2 overall as the schedule full turns over to conference play. Is my team good enough to run the table in the Summit?

I win the first eight games by an average margin of about 15 points. We’re currently 15-2 overall and undefeated in conference on Jan. 23 when we drop 123 points on Oakland in a blowout win where Nelke — possibly my star of the future — scores 19 points off the bench on 5-of-5 shooting from the field and 4-of-4 shooting from three-point range. This is a demolition.

At the same time, It’s not going as well on the recruiting front. Each one of the four players I’ve offered is slow playing it. The good news is they’re slow playing it for everyone, not just me. It doesn’t make this any less nerve-wracking though considering I have so many scholarships to fill. Here’s what the board looks like right now — none of these guys are even close to committing.

I sim through the regular season and win out. Richards drops a career-high 35 points against UMKC in my last game. We end the regular season at 25-2 overall and 18-0 in conference.

No heartbreak in the Summit tournament this year, please.

Summit League tournament

Despite my sparkling record, I have no confidence I’ll get an at-large bid should we be upset in the conference tournament. First game is against Fort Wayne. I take home a 78-62 win with Richards leading the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Next up is South Dakota State in the semifinals. I win, 93-67, with Hehn dropping 26 points and Thompson finishing with 21 points and seven rebounds.

Now I have Southern Utah in the title game. Let’s go!

Oh, my God. My first conference loss of the year, and it happens in the title game, 84-80. I think I just felt my stomach fall out of my body. If this is Richards’ last game, at least he goes out with a new career-high of 37 points.

But wait! We get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament

I can’t believe it. Is this the first at-large bid in Summit League history?

The Leathernecks are a No. 11 seed against Miami (Florida) in the first round. My team’s overall rating is up to a 90 now, with Richards at 87 overall as a senior, and Hehn and Messy at 84 and 83 overall, respectively, as true juniors. The Hurricanes are rated as a 94 overall.

No. 6 Miami (Florida) vs. No. 11 Western Illinois, NCAA tournament opening round

You know I watched the full game and cut up highlights — as a reminder, I’m not actually playing any of the games throughout this series, just watching the computer play it out.

Leatherneck Nation, let’s do this.

The soundtrack for this game is “The Better Parts of Space” from my bud Patrick Cosmos’ 2017 album Tonal Rotors. Support his music here.

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HELL YEAH.

What a win! Down eight with just over six minutes left, and we battle back. Messy was knocking down everything in the second half, and Wiedemann controlled the game from the opening tip. Love to see it. Also shouts to my center of the future, Deke Van, with the big 8-8-2 game without missing a shot.

WESTERN ILLINOIS IS STILL DANCING.

Next up: No. 3 seed Florida State in the Round of 32.

No. 11 Western Illinois vs. No. 3 Florida State, NCAA tournament Round of 32

This game features commentary from my bud, Zach (@ZM_Baseball), and I. It was incredibly intense from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Please enjoy more than seven minutes of Leathernecks basketball:

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One. Stop. Away. From the Sweet 16. And the refs bail out FSU with a whistle. UGH.

Incredible game, incredible season. Western Illinois will be back.

UCLA wins the national championship. My seniors — my first full recruiting class — have graduated:

Richards exits school with 1,614 points for his career — he somehow didn’t win back-to-back Summit League Player of the Year awards, which is a crime. Wiedemann, Cisse, Thompson ... all of them had great careers. And now the program moves forward.

Western Kentucky and UIC offer me a job. No thank you. Instead, I use my new coaching attribute points to boost my offensive and defensive ratings up to a B- and my teaching up to a B+.

Fall recruiting

I still have a ton of work to do in recruiting and I’m not optimistic.

Robertson — my four-star point guard ranked No. 51 overall — signs with UCLA after the second week. Damn.

One by one, everyone else also signs with another school, with one exception: power forward Ira Wells, who commits to WIU on the last week and becomes the first top-100 prospect in program history at No. 82 overall.

I just went 2-for-5 on open scholarships because I don’t have enough recruiting points at Western Illinois to make up ground late in the spring. This isn’t a death sentence for the program, but definitely a set back. I’m going to have to do major work on the recruiting front next year.

After setting my schedule, I sim forward to my sixth year.

Year 6

Here’s the first look at the roster:

To be continued.

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