If there was ever a recruitment that came full circle, Edwardsville’s Mark Smith to Illinois was the one.
The meteoric rise of the 6-4 senior began in December. Illinois had put itself in great position to land the red-hot versatile guard by March. But coach John Groce was fired, the recruitment soon exploded with more high-profile programs involved, and all bets were off.
Now Smith has finally wrapped up a wild ride by committing to Illinois and coach Brad Underwood Wednesday night. Illinois outlasted Michigan State, Ohio State, Butler and a late pitch and offer from Kentucky.
Here are five reasons why the Smith commitment is so important to Illinois.
• Brad Underwood’s first commit is impactful
Brad Underwood had an advantage in the Mark Smith recruitment from the start. Regardless of the head coach or staff in place, Smith definitely had strong feelings towards Illinois and it was the “home state school.” Plus, retained assistant coach Jamall Walker brought some familiarity to the new staff.
All of that went a long way in overcoming the fact Underwood has only been the head coach at Illinois for five-plus weeks.
But Underwood still had to put his best foot forward and lock up a player that was there for the taking. In five-plus weeks on the job Underwood has his first recruit as the coach at Illinois, and he didn’t land any ordinary recruit. This is a bonafide top 100 national recruit who is ready and prepared to contribute immediately as a freshman.
• It helps erase some of the Tilmon sting
When Jeremiah Tilmon was lost it really hit Illinois hard for a number of reasons. This was a signed recruit where all the work had been put in by the previous staff, including Walker. So, yes, it hurt. And it was a buzzkill for Illinois basketball fans.
The addition of Smith, however, certainly helps ease a little of that sting and offsets the loss of Tilmon. It may not quite be the position of need the 6-10 Tilmon provided or a player as highly ranked and touted, but the Smith signing is more than a “feel-good” moment. Illinois landed the state’s Mr. Basketball winner, the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s Player of the Year and one of the most coveted recruits left on the market this spring.
• Illinois held off some major players says something
There were some heavy hitters who came in on Smith late in the process, including offers from both Kentucky and Michigan State. It would have been easy to be star-struck –– and no fault of their own, Smith and his family likely were. But Illinois clearly battled like a big boy and showed some grit in holding off a pair of programs that are clearly on a different level than Illinois. That says a lot about the kid and about Illinois.
Illinois’ history of battling bonafide top 25 programs for high school talent hasn’t fared well over the past decade. This was impressive and needed for this program.
• A much-needed jolt for Illini basketball
Yes, the hiring of a new coach always rejuvenates a struggling college basketball program. But Illinois fans, already reeling from having missed four straight NCAA Tournaments, suffered a bit more with the Tilmon fiasco last month.
When you add a significant piece to the puzzle like Smith, the Mr. Basketball winner and a top 100 player nationally, it’s a significant step in the right direction. That’s the most important part of the Smith news, but it’s also big for the overall perception of the program. The chance to snare this talented of a prospect this late in the process is such a positive push going forward, particularly with it being a high-profile in-state recruit.
• Mark Smith brings a lot to the table
When the City/Suburban Hoops Report releases its final Class of 2017 prospect rankings next month, Smith will finish as the No. 2 ranked prospect in Illinois.
But beyond the ranking and the projections, Smith brings a whole bunch of substance with his game and character.
He’s a workhorse who wants to get better. The time he put in and the confidence he gained after going 100 percent basketball last summer was what turned him into a coveted high-major prospect. In addition, he’s a winner who led Edwardsville to regional and sectional championships. Smith is a leader and terrific teammate, which is an aspect the Illinois basketball program has lacked over the years.
Smith also has a chip on his shoulder. By that I mean the kid wants to be challenged, he wants to be part of a team and program that rises up to beat the kingpins of college basketball.
As a player, Smith has the size, body and athleticism off the floor to impact early. He plays smart and understands the game. He brings versatility and fills a stat sheet.
But the area Smith will ultimately thrive with is his shooting ability. The jump he made in the past nine months with his perimeter jumper, once he was able to get the reps in and hundreds of shots up, was noteworthy. That will only continue until he ultimately becomes a pretty deadly shooter with outstanding range.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport