Brad Underwood and the Fighting Illini scored an enormous win Wednesday, as Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith announced his committed to the program. Smith, the 18th ranked point guard and 76th overall prospect in the 2017 class, chose Illinois despite heavy recruitment from Michigan State, Ohio State, Kentucky and Duke.
Entering his senior season, Mark Smith was a relative unknown. While he did possess offers, none were from the elite level programs he would go on to receive. After finishing the season averaging 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds en route to his Mr. Basketball crown, however, the spotlight turned from dim to blinding.
A two-sport star, Smith’s commitment and eventual retraction from Missouri to play baseball likely contributed to his late blossoming. A star pitcher, Smith’s move toward basketball was a result of compounding setbacks. After an injury to his arm, future coach Tim Jamieson elected to resign after 22 years with the program. Sensing instability with both the Missouri program, as well as his physical heath, Smith turned his attention to the hardwood.
Smith’s rise through the ranks was meteoric. After January 1st, the 6’5” guard received 12 of his 23 scholarship offers. As Smith continued to light up opponents and box scores, the heavy hitters took notice. Tom Izzo and John Calapari both made their way to Edwardsville to plead their case for Smith’s services. It was the newly hired Underwood, however, that emerged victorious.
"We are thrilled to welcome Mark Smith to the University of Illinois family," said Underwood. "This is a big day both for us and for Mark, as he has now achieved the goal of being able to represent his home state by wearing the Fighting Illini jersey.”
After the firing of John Groce, speculation surrounding the status of the 11th ranked 2017 class was in full swing. Despite early positive signs, hope turned bleak as recruits jumped ship. Four-star center Jeremiah Tilmon led the charge, requesting a release from the program mere days after reaffirming his commitment. Javon Pickett followed suite, both by doubling down on his LOI, then requesting a release in the same week.
Though four-star guards Da’monte Williams and Trent Frazier stuck through the coaching shift, a dark cloud of “what if” loomed over Champaign. After two hearty recruiting blows, Underwood and the Illinois program needed a win. With Smith’s commitment, that’s exactly what they got.
Now with Smith on board, Tilmon just might be back in play for the Illini as well. "I've been talking to my good friend Jeremiah. He's been talking to me about maybe coming back to the program," said Smith.
During his announcement, Smith left little guess work as to why he chose Illinois over schools like Michigan State, Duke or Kentucky.
"This gives me the chance to be part of the start of something big and leave my mark," Smith said. He stood up, pulled off his Edwardsville jacket, turned to reveal a polo shirt and pop on a hat. Both were adorned with a block “I”. The crowd erupted.
In one moment, Mark Smith had already left a mark on the Illini faithful. And he’s just getting started.