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Smith commits to Illinois

Four-star+guard+Mark+Smith+committed+to+Illinois+Wednesday.+He+is+head+coach+Brad+Underwood%27s+first+commit.+
Four-star guard Mark Smith committed to Illinois Wednesday. He is head coach Brad Underwood's first commit.

Four-star guard Mark Smith committed to Illinois Wednesday. He is head coach Brad Underwood's first commit.

Photo Courtesy of Sid Hastings/Chicago Tribune

Photo Courtesy of Sid Hastings/Chicago Tribune

Four-star guard Mark Smith committed to Illinois Wednesday. He is head coach Brad Underwood's first commit.

Matt Gertsmeier, Columnist

Mark Smith has committed to Illinois.

The four-star guard held a press conference at Edwardsville High School to announce his commitment Wednesday. Smith took a visit to the Illinois campus last week, and he is the first commit of the Brad Underwood era.

The 6-foot-5 guard from Edwardsville, Illinois, is ranked as the No. 74 player in the nation and No. 4 player in the state according to the 247sports rankings. Smith is the recipient of the 2017 Illinois Mr. Basketball award after averaging about 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game this season. He led Edwardsville to the Super-Sectionals in the IHSA 4A division with a 30-2 overall record.

Smith is the first Illinois Mr. Basketball award winner to commit to the Illini since Jereme Richmond did in 2010. The last Illinois Mr. Basketball on an Illini roster was the 2009 winner Brandon Paul during his senior season in the 2012-2013 campaign. Smith is the 12th Illini-bound recipient of 38 winners since the award’s inception in 1981.

The drought for the state’s top talent is over. The last six years have been tough for Illinois, as it has only been considered as a finalist school for two of the last six winners – Jalen Brunson in 2015 and Chasson Randle in 2011.

I believe Smith’s commitment makes a clear statement for highly rated prospects in Illinois — it’s ok to stay and represent your state school. You don’t need to go to a premier program to get discovered. NBA scouts will find you no matter where you are because that’s their jobs. With his strength and precision to light it up from deep and impressive control when driving to the lane, I have no doubt that Smith will be on the radars of NBA scouts.

Smith exploded this senior season and picked up a lot of interest from some prestigious programs. Smith chose Illinois over offers from Michigan State, Kentucky and Indiana. Duke was also in the mix, visiting Smith on April 19.

If you examine Illinois, Michigan State and Kentucky over the last four years, you can easily notice a huge discrepancy between all three programs. In the last four years, Michigan State has appeared in one Final Four, Kentucky has made two Final Fours and meanwhile the Illini have been ending their seasons tuning into the NIT selection show.

Smith is not only laying down the foundation for the next four years for the Illini but also creating a future for the program beyond his time here. There is no better way to change a program’s culture than to start out by obtaining a recruit who was mulling offers from storied schools like Michigan State and Kentucky. Underwood was phase one of this rebrand and Smith is phase two.

Phase three is Illinois competing for Big Ten championships and qualifying for the NCAA tournament. That may be sooner than most people think with the addition of Smith.

The Illini began pursuing Smith this last year while John Groce was still the head coach. Groce attended one of Smith’s games in late December and offered him a scholarship Jan. 1, 2017.

After Groce was fired, Smith expressed his disappoint in an interview with the News-Gazette. When Underwood came in as the new head coach, Smith remained a top priority for Illinois.

Illini fans took to social media trying to attract Smith as Illinois commit Trent Frazier led the cavalry. A lot of credit needs to be dished out to Frazier, who has an immeasurable amount of passion for the Illini. He appeared to be in contact with Smith throughout these last few weeks and it paid off.

Smith’s commitment extends the class of 2017 to three recruits. He joins DaMonte Williams and Frazier as the class now consists of three guards. Illinois is going to have a scary talented backcourt with Smith, Frazier and Williams joining forces with Te’Jon Lucas and Jalen Coleman-Lands.

The decommitments of Javon Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon dropped the Illini to the No. 63 class in the nation on 247sports. Smith’s addition should bump Illinois up in the rankings. Smith’s commitment to Illinois could also persuade Tilmon or Pickett to reconsider the Illini, which would strengthen this incoming group of prospects back to a top-10 recruiting class.

Three scholarships now remain for Underwood, which he can use for the class of 2017 or wait to use for recruits in the class of 2018.

gertsme2@dailyillini.com

@MattGertsmeier

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