Welcome back to Western Illinois’ chase for greatness in College Hoops 2K8. For an introduction to this series and results from previous seasons, check out the About page on this website.
This is the continuation of 2017-2018 season, or Coach Rick’s 11th year in charge of the program. Here’s a recap of what’s happened so far this season:
The Leathernecks were ranked in the preseason polls for the first time in program history, checking in at No. 11. We proceeded to run the table against a difficult non-conference schedule, and then went 18-0 in Summit League play to enter the NCAA tournament at 31-0. Western Illinois hit No. 1 in the polls for the first time ever and ended the season there.
We recruited for six open scholarships. While none of our targets committed during the season, three players appear poised to sign on the first day of the fall recruiting period.
Earning a No. 1 seed in March Madness for the first time, Western Illinois beat No. 16 seed Portland State by 32 points in the first round (box score), defeated No. 9 seed Cal by 15 points in the round of 32 (box score), beat No. 5 seed Kansas by 30 points in the Sweet 16 (box score), and defeated No. 2 seed Florida by three points in the Elite Eight (box score) to make the Final Four.
Western Illinois entered the Final Four at 35-0. It was the second time the Leathernecks had made the Final Four in program history, following a run to the national championship in 2015 during Coach Rick’s eighth season in charge.
Here’s a look at the roster heading into the Final Four:
Two wins separated the Leathernecks from their second national title in four years. Two wins separated the us from becoming the first college basketball team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to end the season as undefeated national champions.
Our opponent in the Final Four is No. 1 seed Michigan State. The Spartans entered at 33-4 on the year and rated as a 100 overall. As we ended the season at No. 1 in the media poll, Michigan State was No. 2.
Here’s how the two teams stacked up:
We streamed this game live on Twitch on Saturday night and then uploaded the stream onto YouTube. As always, we are watching a simulated game, not actually playing it. The game tips off at 32:39:
Michigan State wins, 109-90. Here’s a look at the final box score:
And here are the tempo-free team stats via @akulawolf:
The dream of a perfect season and second national championship is over. Just a brutal game all-around.
Michigan State looked like the more physical team from the opening tip. It isn’t often we get dominated in the paint and on the glass like that. It would be easier to live with this loss if we simply had a cold shooting night from deep. That didn’t happen. Instead, we got man-handled on the inside. For the first time all season, we actually looked like a mid-major team going up against a blue blood.
I knew we’d be in trouble when Michigan State opened up a double-digit lead 11 minutes into the game. Credit our guys for clawing back to wrestle away the lead in the first half, mostly behind some quality minutes from the bench. It looked like we would go into the break with a lead, but the Spartans hit a three just before the halftime buzzer to go ahead by one.
We’re supposed to be a second half team, right? At least that was the narrative that formed during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, when we streamed our victories over Kansas and Florida in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight respectively. In both games, we trailed going into halftime. In both games, we proceeded to open up big leads in the second half. I think the difference this time was MSU’s talent level in the front court. We couldn’t finish in the paint when we had the ball. Defensively, we gave them too many easy second chance points and showed zero semblance of rim protection. That is how you see an undefeated season go up in smoke.
Jordi Geli Holden, our starting center, shot 1-of-11 from the field and consistently let the MSU bigs beat him on the glass. Our guards couldn’t get it back on the other end. Armien “Moose” Amous had a rough night amid an otherwise solid tournament run, shooting only 2-of-8 from the field and finishing with as many turnovers (five) as points. Star shooting guard Lubos Hatten ended the game with a nice line (24 points, six assists), but it felt like too much of his damage came late in the second half when the result was already decided.
There were a couple silver linings. I thought Joseph Bowens was excellent again. He had another facial dunk in the first half off a turnover (it’s at 39:57 if the timestamp isn’t working) and was the only player on the team who felt like he truly brought his A-game on both ends of the floor. Bert Draughan also had a nice game (16 points on 6-of-8 shooting). He’ll be the future of the program next year, and hopefully the year after that. I also liked what reserve power forward Najeeb Goode did in his minutes.
Ultimately, this was a tough end to a great year. 35-1 and a trip to the Final Four is nothing to scoff at. I just wish we could have finished the job. In a way, it just makes you appreciate what the 2015 team did in Year 8 even more.
The reality of the situation is that we’re losing five seniors to graduation and won’t have this kind of depth again next season. Still, we’ll be back.
The fans in the live chat requested I simulate through the offseason on the stream, so that’s what we did. The only downside of that is my screen shots won’t be as clear, just FYI.
You can watch me play through the offseason starting at 1:32:00 into the stream.
Louisville won the national title, beating Michigan State in the championship game. You may remember we beat Louisville by 18 points during the regular season.
Lubos Hatten and Joseph Bowens were each drafted. Hatten ends his career with 1,808 career points, which I believe makes him our all-time leading scorer.
We earned two coaching points, boosting offense to A- and scouting to B+
We were offered the Georgia and DePaul job, and turned them down
We signed three players on the first day of the fall recruiting period:
Center Roberto Djordjevic out of San Antonio, No. 171 overall and No. 9 at his position
JUCO PG Diondre Haynes out of Tampa, five-star, rated as the top JUCO PG
SF Garik Frye, No. 113 overall and No. 16 at his position
We had three scholarships left to fill.
I had been recruiting shooting guard Borislav Grimes (No. 77 overall and No. 19 at his position) throughout the season. He was down to us and DePaul. When the Blue Demons didn’t offer him on the first week, he signed with us shortly after. We love his shooting ability from deep. Also doesn’t hurt that his name is BORISLAV GRIMES and he’s from my hometown of Orland Park, IL.
Two scholarships left to fill.
The first one goes to five-star JUCO power forward Orien Newton, who we had been recruiting throughout the year. He eventually accepted, making him the fifth member of our recruiting class.
With two weeks left to go in recruiting, the fans on the stream were clamoring for five-star shooting guard Martin Nevill out of Australia. He had good size at 6’5 and would have been the first international recruit in program history. We offered him the scholarship, but he was still only at 73 percent interest on the final week.
That was too risky of a bet for me. I rescinded our scholarship and decided to offer it instead to Austen Kleinzweig, a 6'7 small forward out of Clovis, CA ranked No. 71 overall and No. 9 at his position. He accepted on the final day of recruiting.
Now it was time to set the schedule for next year.
Perhaps against our best interest, I decided to let the fans on the stream pick who we should play next season. While we didn’t know where these teams were ranked in the preseason polls when we were scheduling them, I knew it was going to be ridiculously hard. Here’s the final result:
@ No. 13 Michigan State, @ No. 10 Florida, @ No. 2 Louisville, vs. Illinois, vs. No. 8 NC State, @ No. 3 Duke, vs. Illinois State, vs. Rutgers, vs. No. 18 Pepperdine, @ No. 16 Syracuse
Here’s a first look at our roster for Year 12:
To be continued.
There’s still time to buy a Deke Van t-shirt from Homefield Apparel.
Follow the fan-started @Leathernecks_Nation Instagram account about this series.
Richardpodonnell@gmail.com if you want to email at me. Ricky-ODonnell-1 on Venmo if you want to throw me a couple bucks. Thanks to everyone who has supported the project so far <3
Read the latest from Thanh’s book on the Leathernecks: “Simulating Success”
Here’s the latest from Thanh’s novel on Coach Rick and the Leathernecks. Lots of hot Bud Richards talk in this one.
We’ll be back later in the week. Take care of each other.