On Saturday, Nebraska became the next school in a growing line to pursue 2017 4-star point guard Mark Smith. By offering Smith a scholarship, the Cornhuskers jumped into a turf war with fellow Big Ten suitors Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana. The winner comes away with the potential Illinois Mr. Basketball.
Smith possesses all the skills required in an ever growing, point guard dominant climate. This year he is averaging 22 points, 8.75 assists, 7.9 rebounds, and 2 steals. His seemingly limitless range, juxtaposed with his rim violence on slashing dunks make him a matchup nightmare. Smith can thread the needle, dribble the ball on a string, and ultimately turn any attempt at explanation into a book of clichés.
The 6’4” Edwardsville High School floor general has seen a meteoric rise in interest following the new year. Since January 1st, Smith has received each of his Big Ten offers, as well as sheets from Utah, Cal, Butler, Boston College and Missouri. Texas also threw their hat in the ring this Wednesday.
A two-sport star, Smith’s commitment and eventual retraction from Missouri to play baseball likely contributed to his late blossoming. The former pitcher decided to put more focus on basketball after injuring his arm and he hasn’t looked back.
So far, the home state Fighting Illini seem to have the upper hand. On Illinois’ February 5th contest with Minnesota, Smith was spotted with fellow 4-star Jerimiah Tilmon during an unofficial visit. Already signed with Illinois, the center became pitchman with Smith on campus. Per The News-Gazette, Tilmon’s goal was “to get him here because we need him. I’m telling him that we need him.”
Illinois’ efforts appear to be working. In an interview with Rivals, Smith said “Coach Groce and I talk almost every day. He sent me a text today telling me good luck tonight and that he's looking forward to seeing me.”
If Groce can hang on long enough, he’ll have a tremendous 2017 class. In addition to Tilmon, the Illini have signed three additional four-star recruits in point guard Trent Frazier and shooting guards Da’Monte Williams and Javon Pickett. Landing Smith would see Illinois enter the 2017-2018 season with a whopping five 4-star freshman.
Standing in their way are the Indiana Hoosiers. It took all of two weeks of recruiting for Tom Crean to realize Smith’s potential impact. On February 2nd Indiana made it official and offered him a scholarship.
While Smith has a strong line of communication with Groce and the Illinois coaching staff, he expressed interest in the Hoosier program’s ability to get him to the pros. Smith told Rivals, “They said that they develop their guards and get them to the next level. That's also what I'm looking for, going to a program where they can develop me for the next level.”
Nebraska and Northwestern, as of now, appear to be on the outside looking in. Nebraska was late to the scholarship party, so they were inevitably going to play catch up. Northwestern, however, was one of the earliest Big Ten programs to extend an offer, just two days after Illinois on January 4th. Smith does have two official visits remaining and has expressed interest in touring the Wildcat campus. A successful visit could throw a wrench in the outlook for the St. Louis area guard.
Whoever lands Smith will gain an immediate impact playmaker. If the evolution of college basketball has taught us anything, a point guard is a necessary ingredient to winning. Let’s just hope it’s a Big Ten team.