The Leathernecks enter the 2026 NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed against Cal in our College Hoops 2K8 simulation.
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. For more context on the re-introduction of this series, check out our most recent post.
We pick up with our Leathernecks in the first round of the 2026 NCAA tournament in Year 19 of Coach Rick’s tenure at Western Illinois. Here’s a recap of everything that has happened so far this season:
- Coming off three straight seasons that ended in the Elite Eight, the Leathernecks enter the new year with two returning starters and a team rated as a 97 overall.
- We went 6-6 against a difficult non-conference schedule before dominating Summit League play. We went undefeated in conference and again claimed the Summit League tournament championship. We enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed at 26-6 on the season.
- We recruited for three scholarships, but didn’t land any players in the early signing period.
Read the full Year 19 recap
Here’s a look at our roster heading into the NCAA tournament:
Our opponent in the first round of the NCAA tournament is No. 5 seed Cal. You can look at Cal’s roster here. The Bears enter the game as a 98 overall, while the Leathernecks are now rated as a 100 overall.
This is how the two teams matchup heading into the contest:
There’s no doubt that it’s been a trying season for our Leathernecks. While our roster looks loaded with four starters rated in the 90s entering the NCAA tournament, the pieces haven’t seemed to fit cleanly up to this point.
Senior point guard Angel Keita has been under fire, losing the trust of the fanbase ever since experiencing major turnover problems during the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight of last year’s NCAA tournament. A vocal section of the fanbase pushed for Keita to be benched completely after he shot only 35 percent from the field this year, but we instead decided to trim his minutes a bit and reallocate them to backup Tron Whaley. Keita is now at 26 minutes per game while Whaley is scheduled to play 17 minutes.
The bigger problem may be our lack of a go-to scorer on the perimeter. While Vernard Fulton shocked the world by returning for his senior season despite being projected as a lottery pick, he’s always been more of an elite glue guy than a takeover scorer. A natural power forward, Fulton moved to the wing this year to accomodate the burgeoning talent of sophomore big man Allan Cunningham.
The front court is where we’re really strong. Timon Suotamo — better known as ‘Chewy’ — finished second in the country in scoring at 25 points per game. Cunningham has lived up to the hype. The question is whether our bigs can carry us to another deep tournament run without consistent production from our guards and wings. The first round matchup with Cal offers a fascinating test.
The Bears finished second in the Pac-10 and No. 2 in America in offensive efficiency. Their senior center Homer Maki-Tulokas led the country in scoring during the regular season. Cal wants to play inside-out, setting up a titanic battle in the middle between two star centers.
We streamed this game on Twitch on Sunday night. As always, I’m not controlling Western Illinois; we’re watching a simulated game played by the computer. I’m not playing any of the games in this series, I only do the recruiting and set the coaching strategies. The game will start when you press play on the video.
Our Leathernecks have reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament four years in a row. Can we start another run? Let’s go!
Loss, 90-87. The comeback attempt falls just short and our season is over.
We had a chance to send the game to overtime at the buzzer with a deep three-pointer and …. I really thought it went in. I screamed like it did. Fulton’s heave was just off. We were so close to tying the game as time expired:
The fact that the game even came down to the final shot is pretty remarkable because this sure looked like it was going to be a blowout loss at halftime.
Cal took a 16-point into the break after closing the first half on a 10-0 run. We were down as many as 18 points. Suotamo was having an uncharacteristically quite game in his marquee matchup with Maki-Tulokas, Keita and starting shooting guard Wilky Henry were ice cold, and the bench wasn’t giving us the lift we expect.
But little by little, we started to chip away at the lead. We went to an all-out full-court press defense midway through the second half, which was enough to get us a few steals that turned into some cheap points.
The last minute of this game was wild. I thought we were toast when Cal hit a layup to put them up five points with about 30 seconds left, but we quickly responded with a three-ball from Fulton. We started to intentionally foul, but the Bears were money from the free throw line. Just when it looked like all hope was gone, Keita was fouled on a three-point shot with six seconds left and drained all three shots to put us down one. That led to Fulton’s final heave, which fell just short.
Two big problems for us in this game:
- Our rim protection was horrible. Suotamo is supposed to be a good shot blocker, but Cal was consistently beating us to the basket after getting us to bite on pump fakes around the arc.
- Kieta played 36 minutes even though I explicitly trimmed his minutes before tip-off. I wish the game would have followed those orders.
There are still some bright spots for next year. Cunningham (24 points, nine rebounds) was our consistent scorer and showed his three-point range is no fluke. I can’t wait to watch him go to work as a junior next year. I’m also excited for Henry’s senior year despite an off-night against Cal. He’ll be moving back to his natural position of small forward and hopefully can take a big leap in production.
We can’t make a deep tournament run every year, I guess. We’ll be back.
Bracket contest update
Cal got all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to Xavier. I knew we lost to a quality team.
The Final Four was Michigan over Gonzaga and Xavier over Duke. Michigan beat Xavier to win the national championship. That means our bracket contest winner is Isaac Springer, who correctly picked the Wolverines to win it all. You can find the full leaderboard on our app, which works on desktop and mobile. Here is the final leaderboard:
We had more than 120 entries in the bracket contest once again. Thanks to everyone who participated. Special thanks to Sean Vinsel for building the app and running the contest. Follow Sean on Twitter @HoopsInsight and check out his work writing about the real versions of Louisville and Kentucky basketball.
We’ll do it again next season.
I played through the offseason live on Twitch after we were eliminated. You can watch it here, if you’re into that sort of thing.
- Michigan wins the national championship. The Big Ten title drought is over!
- Timon Suotamo wins Summit League Player of the Year. He just put together one of the most dominant regular seasons in program history. Not bad for the first JUCO center recruit we’ve ever had.
- Suotamo (projected first rounder) and Fulton (projected lottery pick) each get drafted. Angel Keita does not get drafted. Keita will go down as perhaps the most loathed player we’ve ever had.
- Coach Rick’s overall record now stands at 501-120.
- We earn one coaching point for our 500th win and put it in discipline. That raises our discipline grade to a C.
- I get offered the Duke job. Also the Texas Tech job, the Arizona State job, and the Auburn job. I turn them all down.
- We lost an assistant and replaced them with Bron Randle, who was on staff for us a few years ago. He has an A- rating in teaching, and no coaching grade below a C+.
We have three scholarships to recruit for after landing no one during the early signing period. We want one guard, one wing, and one big, and have had offers out since missing on our early targets.
Our top priority is 6’9 small forward Jitim Dupre out of Chicago. After Michigan State drops out during the first week of the spring signing period, Dupre gives Western Illinois his commitment.
Dupre is ranked No. 91 overall and No. 19 at his position. We love his size on the wing and are optimistic about his shooting ability.
Our next target is point guard Koko Reeves out of San Antonio. Reeves is ranked No. 52 overall and No. 27 at his position. He commits to the Leathernecks shortly after Dupre:
Reeves is tiny at 5’10, but he looks like an elite three-point shooter, which we can really use. We’ve had good luck with players from San Antonio before, so let’s keep that trend going.
One scholarship still available. It’s been offered out to center Artie Snipes out of Riverside, CA for most of the season. He finally accepts it just before the end of the signing period:
Overall, I think it’s a solid class. Part of me is wondering if I should have went after a two-guard instead of Reeves as potential insurance in case last year’s top recruit, Mathew Alloway, turns pro early, but that’s okay. We should have three five-year players in this group who provide a nice complement to our stellar recruiting class from last year.
Now it’s time to set our schedule for next season. This is what we went with:
@ Illinois, @ Georgetown, @ Louisville, @ Cal, @ Stanford, @ Michigan, @ Duke, vs. Dayton, @ Vanderbilt
Did I instantly regret making that schedule so difficult? Yes, pretty much. Something to keep in mind moving forward.
Here’s a first look at our roster:
It’s always tough when you have three new starters, but I like the look of next year’s team at first glance. We really need Henry to breakout into a superstar on the wing during his senior year. Cunningham should be primed for a monster year, too. I’m excited to see what Tron can do at point guard, and as of right now I’m leaning towards starting Alloway as a freshman at shooting guard while bringing Ager off the bench as our sixth man.
We also only have one scholarship to recruit for. I’m going to target a five-star JUCO shooting guard to fit the timeline with the recruiting class we just added.
We’re going to stream the regular season of Year 20 at Western Illinois on Wednesday, August 12 at 8:30 p.m. ET. Here’s how you can watch:
Western Illinois, Year 20, 2026-2027 regular season stream
Game: Western Illinois Year 20 regular season stream. We’ll watch one regular season game, recruit, and sim to the NCAA tournament.
How to watch: My Twitch channel
Date: Wednesday, August 12
Tip-off time: 8:30 p.m. ET // 7:30 p.m. CT.
I’ll see you there. Go ‘Necks.
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