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Western Illinois starts a new era in their quest for a national championship in ‘College Hoops 2K8’. This is Year 6 and Year 7 of the journey.

Thank you for returning to Western Illinois’ quest for college basketball immortality in College Hoops 2K8. We introduced this series a few weeks back and laid the foundation for the program with our first full recruiting class in Year 1. We finally made the NCAA tournament in Year 3, winning a thriller in the Summit League title game. Year 5 saw our program win its first NCAA tournament game.

We’ll have an announcement about the future of the series at the end of this story. But first, here’s a recap of what happened in the last post:

  • Finished Year 4 at 22-10. Was swept 3-0 by Oral Roberts during the season, including in the Summit League conference tournament semifinals. We ended up making the NIT, where we were blown out by Clemson.
  • Added two recruits after Year 4: five-star JUCO point guard Damon Hendriks, and five-star JUCO power forward Dawud Byfield.
  • Finished Year 5 at 28-4. Lost to Southern Utah in the conference tournament championship game, but still somehow got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as an No. 11 seed. We earned our first NCAA tournament win, beating No. 6 Miami (Florida) in the opening round. The dream ended the next weekend against Florida State, where we lost by one damn point in the Round of 32.
  • Graduated my first recruiting class, led by one-time Summit League conference player of the year Bud Richards.
  • Added two recruits: four-star power forward Ira Willis and three-star center Burton Ballinger.

Here’s a picture of the roster heading into Year 6:

Ballinger has B potential, the highest I’ve ever had at Western Illinois. Willis — my first top-100 recruit — also looks solid at 75 overall with C+ potential. I’d love to redshirt Willis, but I would only have eight scholarship players on the roster in that case, so I decide to make him my ninth man and let him backup both forward spots. I’ll likely redshirt him a year from now.

Here’s a look at the rotation:

It feels like we’re not quite as talented as last year, and we certainly won’t have the same team unity — one of the factors teams are evaluated by based on their playing experience together. I still like what we have, though.

You already know Tracy Hehn and Wilbur Messy, a pair of four-year starters who should both be sick scorers on the wing as seniors. I’m super excited about Hendriks — my first five-star recruit as a JUCO player — and the start of his three-year stint as starting point guard. My front court is a little green, with Byfield starting in his first season eligible and Van manning the five as a redshirt sophomore. Ward, a gigantic senior center — at 7’1, 260 pounds — will come off the bench. My eight-man rotation is still pretty damn good.

My team is an 89 overall, clearly the best in the Summit League again. No other team is better than 73 — Oral Roberts and Southern Utah.

I also have six scholarships to fill

We need everything, and we absolutely cannot blow it in recruiting like we did last year when we went 2-for-5 on available scholarships. Following our recruiting struggles last season, reader James sent an email proposing I overhaul my recruiting philosophy to purposefully limit myself to 2-3 open scholarships per year. Here are his words:

As an invested fan, I wanted to volunteer one thing, considering the limited number of recruiting points at your disposal. The approach that you took in recruiting the class which included Damon Hendriks and Dawud Byfield seems like an approach you could take every year: focusing on two or three more talented guys, and utilizing the redshirt religiously. Treating recruiting and roster management this way seems like it should do two big things for WIU:

1. That you never need to land more than three guys in a given year, and can devote more attention/points to fewer and more talented guys in each recruiting class.

2. It gives you a shortcut to developing regular upper-class depth and roster balance — seven or eight rotation-worthy true upperclassmen every season AND two or three redshirt freshmen to draw from.

He then included a scholarship chart:

It’s an intriguing offer — and possibly the greatest email I’ve ever received — but I decide to recruit for all six of our open scholarships instead.

I start off targeting four-star shooting guard Lubos Hatten (No. 66 overall, No. 16 SG) and three-star power forward Denver Lane (No. 158 overall, No. 30 PF). Lane is 6’10, 242 pounds and a 45 percent three-point shooter, so I’m thinking he could potentially play three positions for me if I get him.

Here’s my full slate of offers:

  • Four-star shooting guard Lubos Hatten (No. 66 overall, No. 16 SG)
  • Three-star small forward Adham Tyler (No. 107 overall, No. 15 SF)
  • Three-star power forward Joseph Bowens (No. 106 overall, No. 18 PF)
  • Three-star point guard Armein Amous (No. 155 overall, No. 61 PG)
  • Three-star power forward Denver Lane (No. 158 overall, No. 30 PF)
  • Three-star center Harlan Fullove (No. 195 overall, No. 17 center)

First game: @ Illinois

I’m scheduling these nerds every year until I beat them. As a reminder, they whooped my ass last year. Can I get revenge this season?

The Illini are ranked No. 13 in the preseason polls and are a 95 overall. Looks like video game Bruce Weber was able to parlay that 2006 championship game run better than real life Bruce Weber.

Oh my. Blown out, 99-57. Ugly start for my post-Bud Richards era.

Next game: UW-Milwaukee. We win, 76-56. Nelke and Messy each score 15. We have local rival Illinois State after that, and get a 95-69 win. Hendriks balls out with 18 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three — his first signature performance in what we’re expecting to be a long line of them. Ward also chips in 13 off the bench against the Redbirds.

We face Texas A&M next. AGGIES GOING DOWN.

Look at my boy Nelke with a team-high 17 points off the bench. Dude is going to be a stud. Unfortunately, the feel-good vibes from that win are short-lived: Southern Utah beats us by three the following week.

Back on the recruiting front, we’re sitting pretty with Hatten but don’t land him at the end of the early recruiting period even though he’s at 98 percent interest. Now I’m going to have to waste points calling him the rest of the year, which could have went to other players. Denver Lane ends up getting an offer from Central Michigan, so I drop him. The tough week for recruiting continues when Tyler gets a UConn offer and Fulllove gets a Penn offer. I need to find three new recruits.

Big game against Michigan this week. We take a 77-74 loss. Tough. That drops us to 4-3 on the year. Here’s the remainder of the non-conference schedule:

  • We blow out South Florida.
  • Play No. 24 Duke at Cameron Indoor and lose a heartbreaker, 77-72. Damn. Hehn (18 points) and Van (13 points) both play well in the loss.
  • Beat Belmont by eight and lose to Ball State by four. The Leathernecks are 6-5 overall.

Back to recruiting, I’ve maxed out interest in both Hatten and Bowens. I’m praying Bowens doesn’t get a North Florida offer because he’s a Jacksonville kid and his No. 3 priority is being close to home. As long as they don’t get a surprise offer late in the process, I should have two really promising recruits locked up as soon as the spring signing period begins.

The rest of my class currently looks less convinced. I’m still working on Amous, a solid but unspectacular point guard I offered on the first week, and I’ve identified three-star shooting guard Ljubisa Copeland as a potential backup plan if I miss on any of my other guards.

Mcgee gets an offer the next week, so I drop him and set out to find a center. I settle on Jordi Geli Holden, who is ranked only No. 24 at the position but has the right mix of size and AAU production. Full blown conference play is about to start.

I win my next seven games in conference, highlighted by Messy dropping 28 points on Fort Wayne and Byfield scoring 21 on South Dakota State. We hang 101 points on hated enemy Oral Roberts the next game, with Hehn going off for 26 points and Van scoring 22 in the win. The Leathernecks are starting to find their stride at 13-5 overall. Next game is at North Dakota State, and we blow them out, behind 29 points from senior star Tracy Hehn.

We win out the rest of the year and finish the regular season on a 16-game winning streak. We’re 22-5 overall and the No. 1 seed in the Summit League entering the conference tournament.

Here’s what my roster looks like entering the conference tournament — some solid internal improvement from the guys this season. Hehn leads the team in scoring at 15.4 points per game.

Summit League tournament

We have South Dakota State in the opening around — and beat them, 78-57, behind 20 points from Hehn. Next up: Southern Utah. Why am I so nervous for this?

We get a huge win, 103-53. Six Leatherneck players in double-figures, led by Van with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Now I have Oakland in the title game.

We beat Oakland, 78-66. We’re going dancing for the second straight year at 25-5 overall.

We’re an 11-seed against No. 6 Washington in the first round.

NCAA tournament

Wow, Washington is a 99 overall. How are they only a No. 6 seed? Classic Lorenzo Romar ball, to be honest. We’re a 92 entering the tournament, with seven players rated in the 80s. My team has come along really well, but I still feel like I’m a huge underdog. Going to need the seniors Hehn and Messy to play the games of their lives.

I settle down to watch this game (reminder: I’m not playing any of the games during this dynasty, just watching the computer sim). That was a big mistake, because I’m never getting that hour of my life back.

Blown. The. Hell. Out. Season over. Memphis wins the title. I don’t even get any new coaching points.

Hehn and Messy both graduate. Love those dudes.

Now it’s time to restock my roster for the future with these six open scholarships.

Recruiting

We open spring recruiting by landing two studs: No. 66 overall shooting guard Lubos Hatten and No. 106 overall power forward Joseph Bowens. Hatten immediately becomes the top recruit in program history, replacing Ira Willis, who was once ranked No. 82 overall. Bowens looks fantastic, too. Look at that three-point shooting!

A week later, I win a long recruiting battle for 5’11 point guard Armein Amous, who is ranked No. 155 overall. Three-star shooting guard Ljubisa Copeland (No. 140 overall) is another guy I’ve been recruiting since the fall, and I sign him as well. Jordi Geli Holden, the No. 24 center and No. 259 overall player, also signs on as my fifth recruit in the class.

I decide to take a big swing with my one open scholarship: 6’9 small forward Phil Powell, ranked No. 103 overall and the No. 15 player at his position. For whatever reason, this guy has very little interest from other programs, which is just what Ricky Charisma wanted to see.

To be fair, this guy’s offensive stats were terrible in AAU — 7.4 points per game on 25.6 percent shooting from the field and 19.2 percent shooting from three. He has great size though and has to be rated this highly for a reason, right?

I land Powell on the last week of recruiting. Super excited to see what he’s rated and where his potential is at. And with that, I have filled all six of my scholarships.

That’s a six-man class with three players ranked in the top 110 and five players ranked in the top 155. Centers are always lower in the recruiting rankings for some reason, but I landed a top-25 guy at that position, too. Huge class!

Now I have to set the schedule for next year. I decide to play every team in Illinois, because why not? The Leathernecks want to own this state. This non-conference schedule is beautiful:

Ahead to my seventh season.

Year 7

Here’s a first look at the roster.

Nelke is actually an 86 at shooting guard, but we have to move him to small forward because I don’t have anyone else at that position and he’s big enough to do it at 6’6, 217 pounds. Also, my five best players are my five starters, which hasn’t been the case previously in this dynasty.

Waller is my best player despite the fact that he hasn’t been a starter before his redshirt senior year because I’ve had so much depth in front of him. He goes up a couple points when I move him to shooting guard. We’re going to have three natural point guards in the starting lineup this year, which sounds extremely up my alley. Waller, Nelke, and Hendriks are all rated 88 or better as three-point shooters, too. Give me all of the high-IQ ball handlers who can shoot with range. I also decide to abandon my plan to redshirt Willis because I need him as sixth man this year who could play either forward position.

Here’s a look at how the freshmen are rated:

  • C Jordi Geli Holden: 75 overall, C potential (No. 259 overall/No. 24 center)
  • SG Lubos Hatten: 75 overall, B- potential (No. 66 overall)
  • SF Phil Powell: 73 overall, A- potential (No. 103 overall)
  • PF Joseph Bowens: 73 overall, B+ potential (No. 106 overall)
  • SG Ljubisa Copeland: 72 overall, C potential (No. 140 overall)
  • PG Armein Amous: 68 overall, C+ potential (No. 155 overall)

I decide to redshirt Holden, Powell, Bowens, and Copeland. Hatten is going to the first guard off the bench and the last player in eight-man rotation. The plan is to redshirt Hatten next year when I have more depth. I’m also keeping Amous active this year as my ninth man, even though he isn’t in the rotation, just for games when guys get into foul trouble.

Here’s a look at the rotation:

Western Illinois enters the season at a 90 overall. With four redshirt juniors in the starting lineup, we should be even better next year.

I only have one scholarship to work with. Since I’m not totally sure Amous will be good enough to eventually lead a powerhouse team even as fifth-year senior, I decide to put a bunch of point guards on my target list. Eventually, I offer five-star JUCO Darrel Ogunride, a 6’3 lead guard from Chicago.

First game: @ Illinois

An opening night tradition of getting my brains beat in unlike any other. The Illini are already 2-0 and ranked No. 18 in the country when I face them. One time, Leathernecks?

OH, HELL YEAH! 69-63! Holy shit!

Look at those three point guards do work. I’m counting this as a program-defining win. Could I have a chance to crack the top 25 this year?

We beat UIC by 20 (Nelke: 17 points, Van: 15 points, 10 rebounds) then beat Loyola, 62-51, (Van: 19 points) to end the next week. As the early signing period begins, we get revenge on Northern Illinois with a 30-point win (Byfield: 26 points, four blocks) and then beat Bradley, 82-56 (Van: 16 points). We’re 5-0 to start the year.

Our first loss comes during one of these weird early conference games, where I somehow lose to South Dakota State, 65-62. We scored 16 points in the second half. Was there a killer party in Macomb last night that no one told Coach Rick about?

As early recruiting ends, I have a lead for Ogunride but Illinois is now hot on his trail, too:

Two local heavyweights on the schedule this week: Northwestern and DePaul. First up is the Wildcats.

It didn’t go so well:

DePaul also beats me, 68-66. I really thought we could go undefeated two weeks ago.

I got Southern Illinois next, and win, 83-62. Unfortunately, that didn’t impress the point guard I’m recruiting: we go from first to third for Ogunride in the course of one week. Bummer, because he seems super good. I drop him and extend an offer to my backup plan, Nikola Stockman, a 6-foot point guard from local Peoria ranked No. 104 overall

I beat Illinois State and Eastern Illinois by 21 points each. Waller pops off for 19-5-5 against EIU. I’m 11-3 as I get into the thick of conference play. Can I run the table?

We start out 5-0 with my closest win being 19 points. I end up winning out. A lot of red dubs on the schedule this year:

We enter the conference tournament at 25-3 overall. Van somewhat surprisingly leads the team in scoring (15.2 points per game) and rebounding (6.4 per game). Waller (13.1) and Nelke (12.0), and Byfield (11.7) are my other double-figure scorers. Hendriks averages 9.9 points per game.

Summit League tournament

We have Southern Utah in the first round of the Summit League tournament. And we win, 64-59. Uh, that was kind of tight?

I play Fort Wayne next in the conference semifinals. Another win, 65-53. The only team standing between Western Illinois and another NCAA tournament berth is my old nemesis, Oral Roberts. I’m a 92 overall and they’re a 70 overall, so I probably shouldn’t be as nervous for this game as I am.

We win, 82-61. WE’RE DANCING AGAIN.

This is our third straight NCAA tournament appearance. The team is 28-3 on the year. Could I finally get a seed that isn’t in the double-digits?

To find out, I actually watch the Selection Sunday show, hosted by virtual Greg Gumble. Remember when I said this game is, like, insanely deep in terms of features in Legacy mode? This is one of them. Even after I eventually start skipping ahead, the show still runs for over nine minutes.

Please, enjoy this ridiculous video game TV show with me:

NCAA tournament

We get a No. 10 seed — our best ever — and draw a first-round matchup with No. 7 seed NC State. Winner is likely getting second-seeded Georgetown in the Round of 32.

Before I do this, I check out my roster again. Waller is now a 90, making him the first player in program history to hit that mark. I have seven guys rated at least in the 80s.

My team is pretty nasty: lots of shooting and ball handling in my three-point guard lineup on the perimeter, my lowest-rated starter is an 84 overall, and I have two guys in the 80s coming off the bench.

I think I have enough to make a tournament run this year, but NC State looks tough.

Of course I’m watching this one. Music is again provided by my bud Patrick Cosmos from his album Tonal Rotors.

Let’s do this.

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I think I’m going to throw up.

I asked my forever colleague Mike Prada to GIF my fucking heart breaking.

Manning absolutely killed me all night (37 points on 15-of-24 shooting), and he ends up hitting a 35-foot dagger at the buzzer to win it. Unreal. We end the year 28-4 overall. I’m going to need a couple days to get over this.

Maryland wins the title. Van wins Summit League Player of the Year as a junior. Here’s a look at Coach Rick’s resume after seven seasons:

I get offered the Wichita State job and turn it down. I only have one available scholarship and that gets wrapped up in the first week when Stockman accepts my offer.

Time to set my schedule for next year. I figure I’m going to have a loaded team with four redshirt senior starters, so give us a real test before conference play? I’m going at UCONN, at Michigan State, at Arizona, at North Carolina, at Notre Dame, and at Wisconsin.

Year Eight

This is going to be a special season. Here’s a first look at the roster.

To be continued

This is unfortunately the last post on Western Illinois’ chase for a championship at SB Nation. I’m going to continue writing the series entirely for free over here. Please sign up to follow along.

If you signed up for email updates here, you should be transferred over. Year 8 is going to run Saturday or Sunday at the new site. I can’t wait to see what next year’s roster can do. I hope you continue following along. Thanks for reading and engaging.