WEST LAFAYETTE -- Growing up a basketball fan in Champaign, the young Jay Simpson once proudly rooted for the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Simpson still remembers the days of rooting for his favorites like Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine, the Illini greats that led the program to a 2005 Final Four run. He frequently attended games at Assembly Hall as a child in Champaign.
But when Simpson returns to his hometown on Wednesday night, he’ll be in Boilermaker black and gold, not the orange and blue he grew up on. The Purdue forward is eager for his first chance to face the Fighting Illini.
“I’ve got to stay level-headed and stay humble,” Simpson said of Wednesday’s contest. “It’ll be a better feeling if we get a victory.”
In high school, Simpson was looked at by former Illinois coach Bruce Weber, but his recruitment didn’t last long enough for a true evaluation. He pledged to Purdue on November 25 of 2009, nearly three years before he could even sign a letter of intent.
Simpson felt Purdue was the perfect fit for his future and didn’t want to wait on any other opportunities. Still, it was a little uncomfortable to go against the school he grew up with.
“It was kind of a weird feeling committing to Purdue with Illinois being the hometown team,” Simpson said.
“I just felt like this is the best place for me and the best fit for my game. Coach Painter is a great coach and I wanted to play for him.”
Many of Simpson’s Purdue teammates can relate to the experience of playing in front of the hometown crowd. Sophomore point guard Ronnie Johnson has played in Indianapolis twice, and frequently has friends and family attending games in West Lafayette.
Johnson understands what Wednesday night means to Simpson.
“He’s definitely ready to play there,” Johnson said. “He was kind of sad about it last year that he wasn’t able to play. I think he’s ready to play, go back to his hometown and show what he can do.”
Simpson has averaged 5.1 points while appearing in each of the Boilermakers’ 16 games. His arrow continues to point upward after a redshirt year where he battled a foot injury while trying to get in shape.
Perhaps the best showing from Simpson came in Purdue’s win over Nebraska on Sunday, where he came off the bench to provide seven points in 14 minutes while boosting the Boilermakers in a key victory.
Sophomore guard Rapheal Davis, a former high school teammate and close friend to Simpson, saw the inspiration in his performance.
“He wanted to send a message to the coaches and fans that he’s not a bum,” Davis said. “He’s a really good player. He showed a little flash of that [against Nebraska].”
The motivators of Wednesday’s game are more than enough for Simpson. The Champaign native is aiming for another important performance to key another needed win. Doing so against the hometown team would make it even more memorable.
“I get to play in front of my family and friends,” Simpson said. “I’ve got some family that has never seen me play before. It will definitely be special.”