During the next month, lliniInquirer.com lead basketball reporter Derek Piper will break down more than a dozen Illinois basketball targets, what he learned from watching them on the summer AAU circuit and where Illinois stands with them in their respective recruitments.
Today - Xavier Simpson, point guard Lima (Ohio) point guard
The timing has never been more crucial for the Illinois basketball program in its search for the point guard of the future.
Lima Senior (Ohio) point guard Xavier Simpson entered the month of July as the highest-ranked Illini target at the position. Simpson’s play on the AAU circuit was nothing short of impressive, but excitement was tempered in Champaign, based on his recruiting outlook.
With Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans cemented as the first two targets on the official visit slate last year, there was a sense of hopeful optimism in the air. Things are a little different this time around. The Illini don’t have any five-star point guards on the docket, while optimism has shifted to nervous desperation for much of the fan base.
But the tide has been shifting with Simpson over the last few weeks, as the Illini are not far from striking distance.
What We Saw In July
While the rankings don’t tell the story, Simpson played like one of the top-10 point guards in the class during the July evaluation period. He was simply one of the best players on the floor during the Peach Jam -- averaging 16.8 points, 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. As the numbers convey, the 5-foot-10 guard brings so many things to the court. The hard-nosed floor general showed off his court vision, facilitating skills and ability to score off the dribble.
Simpson also brings two aspects to the table that can’t be found on a stat sheet. He is one of the best on-ball defenders at the position, as he disrupts opponents from end to end. Simpson is also a winner. He won a state championship in Ohio as a sophomore, and he took his team’s play to another level this summer. The King James Shooting Stars were the champions of the AAU Super Showcase in Louisville during the final weekend on the summer circuit.
How He’d Fit In Illini Class
The Illini are looking for a point guard who can make an impact from the time they arrive on campus, and Simpson definitely fits that bill. With his combination of skill, basketball IQ and strength, Simpson will be Big Ten-ready next fall. There’s no question that he would be the highlight of the class, and probably John Groce’s most important get to date. Simpson is a leader and a guy that teammates want to battle with on the court. If he ends up in Champaign, he’d be an emphatic answer to Illinois’ biggest ongoing question.
Where Do The Illini Stand
The ultimate answer has been uncertain over the last few months, ever since Simpson nearly committed to Xavier in May. But Illinois’ relationship with Simpson and his father, Quincey, has been strong throughout. Groce took multiple trips up to Ohio during the high school season, and his approach has been consistent and unwavering.
“I like Illinois. They have been consistent with me,” Simpson said earlier this summer. “They aren’t on and off. So I like Illinois, they show a lot of loyalty.”
Simpson has taken a great liking to Groce and assistant coach Dustin Ford. He has talked about how he feels comfortable with them and trusts what they say. That is a big sell, along with the fact that he can come in and start from Day One. Last week, Quincey Simpson reiterated their interest in Illinois but wouldn’t say for sure if they’d get an official visit.
The Illini have been trying to lock up a visit date at the end of this month, which would likely be his last stop on the visit tour. Simpson was originally scheduled to go to Purdue last weekend, but he had to reschedule for family reasons. Now, his only solidified date for a visit is this weekend to Iowa State. But there is strong hope that Simpson will make it to the Illinois campus.
“We are definitely going to Champaign soon, but haven’t solidified a date yet,” Quincey told Illini Inquirer on Monday.
If Simpson leaves Iowa State without a commitment and follows through on a trip to Illinois, things could really interesting in a hurry.
Sizing Up The Competition
Xavier was the heavy favorite for Simpson throughout much of the spring, and they tried to capitalize on their momentum by pushing for a commitment. The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful after a crazy sequence of events. But even afterwards, many considered the Musketeers the team to beat. That was officially put to rest on Sunday when Xavier landed four-star PG Quentin Goodin.
“Xavier is not in consideration,” Quincey said on Monday.
That leaves Iowa State and Purdue as Illinois’ biggest threats in the chase. Simpson was high on the Cyclones when Fred Hoiberg recruited him this spring, and new head coach Steve Prohm has done a great job of pick up from there. Iowa State is looking for someone to take over for Monte Morris, who will likely go pro after next season. The program has become a national contender over the last few years. In addition, the fact that Prohm developed Murray State point guard Cam Payne into a first-round pick is an attractive sell to Simpson.
Purdue has the potential to be a good fit as well. The Boilermakers are also in need of an impact point guard to go with their surrounding talent. If Simpson chose to go to Purdue, they would be one of the heavyweights in the Big Ten during his freshman year with the likes of Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards, Kendall Stephens and others. Simpson fits the gritty, blue collar mold of the program, and Matt Painter has made him a top priority.
It will be a long weekend for Illinois and Purdue, as they wait to see if Simpson makes it out of Iowa State without a pledge.
“We don’t have anything set in stone besides Iowa State this weekend,” Quincey said. “We’ll get to the table after this week and see where we go next.”