North Chicago’s Simpson picks Illinois StatePeoria IL 3/19/11 North Chicago's Aaron Simpson (1) shoots a layup. | Rob Dicker~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 28, 2011 7:35PM
North Chicago senior guard Aaron Simpson made an oral commitment Wednesday to play his college basketball for Illinois State University in Normal.
The Redbirds play at the NCAA Division I level in basketball and compete in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The official signing period — when the actual signing of the letter of intent can occur — is in November.
Simpson’s announcement ended a long recruiting process for the four-year varsity player who led the Warhawks to a fourth-place finish in last season’s IHSA Class 3A basketball tournament.
And his announcement also came just days after Simpson was involved in one of the more bizarre recruiting stories.
This fall, Simpson is running cross country for North Chicago for conditioning purposes, and perhaps because the school’s cross-country coach, Gerald Coleman, also is the school’s boys-basketball coach.
In a recent meet, Simpson was running in the pack at his usual pace and out of sight of coaches and spectators when he suddenly disappeared. Nobody at the finish line and nobody who ran the race knew what had happened to him.
Eventually, he was tracked down standing under a tree off the course. He’d gotten a call from a college basketball coach during the race and stopped running to answer his cell phone.
It’s probably safe to assume the coach wasn’t calling to ask how Simpson was doing in the race.
Simpson said he liked everything about Illinois State.
“The coach (Tim Jankovich is in his fifth season at ISU; the team was 12-19 last winter) ... the chance for playing time ... and the environment at the school. I went down there once last year, my junior year. I’ll be visiting again on the 14th for Homecoming. The coaches gave me a warm welcome. They came to my house. They broke everything down for me from academics to basketball. That was more important for me than anything.
“It’s beautiful down there,” he added. “People down there have been good to me, even when they didn’t know who I was. I know the fans down there have liked my game. It’s a great environment.”
Normal area basketball fans might be familiar with Simpson’s high-octane style of play because North Chicago has played the last several years in a Christmas tournament in the Bloomington/Normal area.
Last year, the 6-foot-1 combo guard averaged 22.5 points, 4 assists and 5 rebounds per game while playing both the point- and shooting-guard positions. He also shot 30 percent from three-point range.
He’s been on the Warhawk varsity since the last few games of his freshman season and last year topped the 1,000-point mark in career scoring.
He said he’s glad to get the decision out of the way early in the school year so he can focus on academics and basketball without addition recruiting distractions.
“One of the most difficult things about last year was that there were some seniors (on the North Chicago team) who didn’t get the chance to do this (the college recruiting process) because they were so focused on playing well, getting a scholarship, then getting on their grades. With this out of the way, it will be easier for me to focus on basketball and academics.”
Yes, he knows that all things basketball depend on making the grade in the classroom.
“Academics is my first priority,” he said. “I have to take care of business in the classroom. I take care of that, then cross country and basketball come next.”
Simpson said Illinois State was a popular choice within his immediate family.
“After they (ISU’s coaches) came to the house, my Mom said this was by far the school that she wanted me to go to. My cousin — her nephew — goes there, so she thinks I made a good decision.”
So does his high school coach, who’s glad the recruiting process is over.
“We wanted him to open up, and be free to focus totally on his academics. Plus, we want him to be able to enjoy his last year here,” the coach said. “I look forward to seeing him in two years when he hits the weight room and learns what college basketball is all about. He’s going to be something to watch.”
One of the assistant coaches at ISU is Rob Judson, a prep star at Zion-Benton. Judson’s father was Coleman’s sophomore basketball coach in the early 1970s at North Chicago.
“I’ve known Rob since he was a kid. I was very comfortable with him. What really impressed me about him is that whenever we talked about Aaron, we talked about academics,” Coleman said. “What he could expect, what was expected of him. Basketball was a secondary priority. That really impressed me.”
“I always hope my players, when they choose a school, will pick somewhere that fits what they can do. Illinois State plays an up-tempo style. Aaron is a perfect fit. He can play the point. He can play the ‘2.’ He can do so many things on the court. That’s what’s so exciting. He can rebound and go in there and bang.”
As for qualifying academically to play next year at ISU, Coleman had positive words to say about his best player.
“Aaron is definitely on track. Progress reports came out last week and Aaron had all A’s. We try to teach all our kids that as athletes, students in grade school and middle school look up to you, and you have to try to set an example.
“They’re in the spotlight. When kids see Simpson doing this or that, they want to do it too. I think the light came on in Aaron’s head. Teachers have told me that they can see it. So I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from teachers about Aaron this year.”
North Chicago will open its 2011-2012 season in the Waukegan Thanksgiving tournament. Also there will be Warren, which finished second last year in the IHSA Class 4A state tournament.