Lone freshman helped by coach, teammates



By Jeremy Werner

Stan Simpson is one of three new names on the Illinois basketball roster this season. But unlike transfers Alex Legion and Dominique Keller, the 6-foot-9 freshman center is required to live in a campus dorm. With no other freshmen on the Illini, Simpson has to adapt to college life and a Big Ten basketball schedule without a fellow newcomer.

“I have people that help me but nobody to relate, other freshmen,” Simpson said.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber has made a conscious effort to guide the Chicago product through the transition.

“We have to help him through some tough times, because he goes back to the dorm and his roommate’s not a basketball player,” Weber said. “It’s a normal student. That guy’s looking at him and he didn’t have to go through a workout and weights and conditioning and then go to study table. That guy probably wants to already go play pool or go to a movie or something. It’s a little tougher situation.”

But Simpson said he hasn’t felt that lonely yet because he has made new friends at the dorms and hangs out with his teammates. Having a roommate that played basketball at Bolingbrook High School hasn’t hurt.

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    “Most of my friends in the dorms, they love basketball, so we talk about basketball all the time,” Simpson said. Weber has also asked his players to help Simpson’s along. But sophomore guard Demetri McCamey said the team isn’t babying the freshman either. He said the players are “giving him the freshman tease” by “tossing him around, throwing him, pushing him, elbowing him, getting him into the physical style of the Big Ten” during workouts.

    “We’re putting a lot of pressure on him, but we also got to know that he’s the only one here,” McCamey said. “He’s got to go through the whole process alone. Dominique went to junior college so he knows how it is with classes and practices. Stan still has to come around, but he’s showing really good signs so far.”

    Last year’s five-member freshmen class went through a much different experience than Simpson.

    “Only thing is last year we had a couple of guys that they could help you along,” sophomore guard Jeff Jordan said. “You know, you’re going through it with a bunch of people. But once you’re going through it by yourself, it’s kind of hard. But I think he’s adapted well, pretty well so far.”

    Simpson averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds as a senior in leading Simeon to a Class 3A second-place finish. He spent his first three years at Chicago Leo before transferring to the Illinois basketball powerhouse Simeon, best known for consecutive state championships in 2006 and 2007 led by Chicago Bulls No. 1 draft pick Derrick Rose.

    Most describe Simpson with one word: upside. The freshman center with a self-reported 36-inch vertical has a knack for shot-blocking and rebounding but is very raw offensively. Unlike Tisdale and Davis, Simpson has added weight (10 pounds) quickly. He hopes to add another 10 pounds to reach a weight of 240 during the season.

    Weber has been impressed with Simpson’s raw skills but wants to see more effort from the big man.

    “He’s got a lot more talent and is a lot smarter than we ever anticipated,” Weber said. “He’s also a lot lazier than we anticipated. If we can get some of the laziness out.”

    “He has some talent; there’s no doubt about it … He’s just got to pick it up a whole ‘nother notch school-wise, basketball-wise. It’s moving a lot faster than he’s ever had to move in his life.”

    Even with gradual progress on offense and in the weight room, Simpson will struggle for minutes in a crowded frontcourt. The possibility of a redshirt remains but Simpson said if it is his choice, a decision Weber has recently left to the players, he’s playing.

    Although his minutes could be limited this season, Simpson will likely play a big role for the Illini in the future. With verbal commitments from three guards – D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseph Bertrand – as well as Tyler Griffey, a forward that likes to face the basket, Simpson figures to be the Illini’s future enforcer in the post.

    For now, Simpson is still adjusting to the life of a freshman basketball player at a Big Ten university. But the newest and youngest Illini said that although he is the only freshman member of the Illinois’s 2008 recruiting class, he has enjoyed meeting new people, playing basketball and even attending class.

    “Just going to class, doing workouts, playing basketball,” Simpson said. “It’s what I’ve been doing all my life, so it’s not really that hard.”

    Jeff LaBelle contributed to this story