Welcome back to Western Illinois’ chase for greatness in College Hoops 2K8. If you’ve been following this series since the start: thank you and I love you. If you need a full recap of exactly what we’re doing here and how we got to this point, check out the About page on this website.
Before we pick up at the Sweet 16, here’s a rundown of everything that happened in Year 8 so far:
We landed our best recruit yet, small forward Bert Draughton out of Chicago, at the end of the fall recruiting period. He’s the state’s Mr. Basketball and is ranked as the No. 29 overall player in his class.
After a shaky performance against a difficult non-conference schedule, we ran the table in conference play and earned an automatic bid for the big dance by winning the Summit League tournament.
Entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed, we knocked out Ole Miss in the first round when they missed a go-ahead three-pointer in the final seconds. Senior shooting guard Giovanni Nelke (23 points, five assists) and star center Deke Van (13 points, 16 rebounds) led the way.
We then pulled off the upset against No. 2 seed Michigan State — rated as a 100 overall — in the round of 32. Van (26 points, 10 rebounds) was the star of the night.
Now we face Villanova in the Sweet 16. Let’s get another look at where our roster stands entering the second week of the tournament:
Because this might be my last chance to say something about the guys, let’s run through our starting lineup real quick:
PG Damon Hendriks, redshirt senior: Sick handles, best passer on the team (88 rating), highest rated shooter on the team (92 rating) but more reluctant to fire from three-point range than we would like. Three-year starter. First five-star recruit in program history as a JUCO.
SG Giovanni Nelke, redshirt senior: Natural point guard with the size to play three positions — dedicated fans will remember he started at small forward for us last year. Rated as a 91 three-point shooter. Diverse scoring package from three levels. He’s also the first projected NBA draft pick in program history with the game currently listing him as a second round pick.
SF Ira Willis, true junior: Converted power forward with an 82 rating in three-point shooting. He just had a breakout game in the tournament against Ole Miss (18 points, 4-of-6 shooting from deep). First top-100 recruit (No. 82 overall) in program history. Only non-redshirt senior in the starting lineup.
PF Dawud Byfield, redshirt senior: Undersized power forward who contributes a little of everything. Three-year starter. Former five-star recruit as a JUCO player.
C Deke Van, redshirt senior: Reigning Summit League player of the year. Led the team in scoring (20 PPG) and rebounding the last two seasons. Three-year starter.
Four of these guys were starters on last season’s team that lost to NC State on an absolutely insane buzzer-beater in the opening round of the tournament. They’ve been out for redemption all year. This is their moment.
I’m also loving the development on the bench. Ballinger might be the best backup center in the country and still has two seasons of eligibility left after this one. With B potential, he’s going to be a monster moving forward. Phil Powell is also a future star. He’s massive (6’9, 245 pounds) for a wing and can hit a jump shot, plus he has the highest potential rating (A-) of any player in program history. There’s so much depth beyond them, bolstered by a strong redshirt freshman class that should lead a contending program a couple years down the road.
This isn’t the time to think about the future, though. My opponent in the Sweet 16 is Villanova. Here’s a look at their roster:
Like us, the Wildcats also have two starting guards in the 90s. Their best player is sophomore Wilson Todd, who was once the No. 3 overall recruit in America. It’s a strong overall roster, but there’s one thing Villanova is very clearly missing: size. Of their 10 best players, only one isn’t a guard. 6’11 junior Taurean Cannon (88 overall) looks real good in the middle, and 6’9 freshman Keon Connolly (78 overall) is playable. But that’s it. They don’t have a center on the whole roster.
This has to be Van’s time to shine. Time to let the big dog eat.
Here’s how we stack up entering the Sweet 16:
As always, we are watching this game and not actually playing it. I move the controller to the middle and press start.
Western Illinois vs. Villanova, Sweet 16, 2015
Our first ever Sweet 16 game. Let’s go!
Oh my god. Down 11 with 12 minutes left, down three with under two minutes left, and we crawl back. Nelke is absolute money. How are you going to give him back-to-back open corner threes from the same spot, Jay Wright? And Hendriks. HENDRIKS. I’ve been yelling at the TV for him to shoot more for three seasons, and he puts the final dagger in the Villanova with that jumper.
Van: 22 points, 10 rebounds, four assists; a king in every regard. My man is on a mission. Will Phil Powell ever miss again???
I love this team, man. We’re still dancing. And we’re one win away from the Final Four.
Our competition in the Elite Eight is No. 1 seed Pepperdine
The Waves just beat Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16 to get here. They enter at 32-2 overall with both losses coming in West Coast conference play. Despite their gaudy record and top seed seed, we are actually more talented than this team. They are rated as a 92 overall, three points worse than our Leathernecks.
Here’s a look at the Pepperdine roster:
Their best player is senior power forward Antwan Harris (87 overall), who averaged 21.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this season. He’s going to be trouble. Junior shooting guard Ivan Harmon (86 overall) is their top perimeter scorer, followed by four solid point guards. Sophomore center Donnie Matthews rounds out the lineup.
It’s a good roster, sure. But I’m feeling pretty confident entering this game.
Let’s check out the rest of the NCAA tournament field
As I sim to our game vs. Pepperdine, it turns out we already have one team in the Final Four: No. 6 seed Kansas.
The Jayhawks beat fourth-seeded St. Joe’s by 13 in the Elite Eight to punch their ticket. Kansas is a 98 overall, with three players (their starting PG, SG, and SF) rated in the 90s. Here’s are the remaining Elite Eight matchups.
East Regional final: No. 5 Cal (97 overall) vs. No. 7 UNLV (92 overall)
South Regional final: No. 2 Georgia Tech (99 overall) vs. No. 1 Maryland (100 overall)
The Terps are the defending champs and have six players rated in the 90s on their roster. Sheesh. They definitely seem like the favorites to win it all at this point. Fortunately, they’re on the other side of the bracket, and we couldn’t see them until the title game. The winner of the East regional will be our opponent if we can beat Pepperdine.
We’re not looking ahead just yet -- just taking note of the competition. It’s time for Pepperdine. It’s time to earn a berth to the Final Four.
Western Illinois vs. Pepperdine, Elite Eight, 2015
I can’t believe this is happening. A Final Four berth is within sight.
Leatherneck Nation, let’s do this.
We’re going to the Final Four. The Leathernecks are going to the Final Four!
Our guys were locked in were from the opening tip. We had a game plan (apparently, I wish I could set this) of firing a lot of threes and letting the bigs clean up the glass, and we stuck to it. There was no way we were losing that game.
Willis — just a virtuoso inside-out scoring performance. He killed it. Nelke got up 22 threes!?! We love to see it. Van with nine assists?? Rough shooting night for our boy (2-for-14) but he still found a way to contribute. And how about Hendriks with his second straight double-double? WILL PHIL POWELL EVER MISS AGAIN?
oh my, we’re going to the Final Four
Let’s watch the studio show:
We have Cal. Oh man oh man oh man.
As I sim to my game, the first matchup of the Final Four — Maryland vs. Kansas — has already played out. And Kansas comes away with a win. I’m stunned.
The Jayhawks are in the national championship game. This is payback for getting off that joke about Bill Self in season one.
Here’s Cal’s roster. I really can’t believe we’re doing this.
They have great top-end talent with four 90s.
This team has like zero size.
We need a live stream!
And here is the original post:
We’re streaming the Final Four game against Cal this Saturday, May 9, on my Twitch channel at 8:30 p.m. ET. You don’t need to sign up for anything or download anything to watch the game. Just go to the channel and press play.
If we beat Cal, we’ll start the national championship game against Kansas immediately after. Here’s everything you need to know to watch.
Game: Western Illinois vs. Cal, Final Four
How to watch: My Twitch channel
Date: Saturday, May 9
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET // 7:30 p.m. CT
There will be a Ricky Charisma live press conference before the game. You can ask me questions using the Twitch chat if you do free registration over there.
I’m planning to send out an email about 30 minutes before tip-off with ‘how to watch’ information again so make sure you’ve signed up for email updates on this series here.
This is really happening.
Some other news and notes:
Michael Levin of the great Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast covering the Philadelphia 76ers was nice enough to plug this series last week. Starts at the 27-minute mark.
I’ve been talking about the Western Illinois dynasty with Joe Roderick every week. Here’s a link to our most recent conversation.
As I publish this post, we have 6,813 subscribers to this newsletter. Blows my mind. Thank you to everyone who has been reading and sharing.
Some genius made a Deke Van twitter account which is the best thing ever:
OK, who made me the head coach of Western Illinois on Wikipedia?
I also wanted to shout out a few other Substack newsletters by friends:
Mike Prada is bringing his excellent Prada’s Pictures series to Substack. This is the best analytical basketball writing out there. His first post on Scottie Pippen’s ascension in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Pistons is one of the best “Last Dance”-related pieces I’ve read so far.
“Here’s Basketball” is the new newsletter from Matt Ellentuck covering the WNBA and women’s basketball. He has already given himself a haircut on on Twitch for his launch, so he’s really just playing the hits at this point.
The greatest basketblogger of all-time, Tom Ziller, keeps doing work with his essential “Good Morning, It’s Basketball” newsletter.
The Banner Society squad captained by Spencer Hall, Jason Kirk, Richard Johnson, and Alex Kirshner are releasing a sci-fi western college football book illustrated by the great Tyson Whiting. This shit is going to be next level; support a great project and that also supports a great cause (“Feeding America”).
Alex McDaniel has launched “No Fall Weddings” covering Southern sports and culture.
Jack Silverstein is a Chicago sports historian who has been writing about Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Bulls dynasty at “A Shot on Ehlo”. This is the most in-depth thing I have ever read on MJ’s gambling.
Kevin Kaduk has become one of my favorite morning reads with his “Midway Minute” newsletter covering Chicago sports.
I also want to thank the people who supported the project at the end of the last post again. You guys are incredible. Means the world to me.
We’re streaming a fucking Final Four game on Saturday night. Leatherneck Nation forever.