Can Mark Smith be the next to join the class of 2017?


Ryan Fang

Josh Whitman introduces new men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood during a press conference March 20. Underwood now has his first recruit signed, Mark Smith.

By Matt Gertsmeier, Columnist

When Brad Underwood was hired a few weeks ago, Illini fans buzzed with electricity. He was a proven winner during his time at Stephen F. Austin State University and Oklahoma State.

But the bulbs started to dim when recruiting got in the mix. Questions began to surface of whether or not Underwood would keep Illinois’ current Class of 2017 signees on board.

Underwood now faces a unique challenge to regenerate some confidence on the recruiting side of things for the Illini.

Last week, Illinois received release requests from 6-foot-10 center Jeremiah Tilmon and three-star guard Javon Pickett. Before Tilmon and Pickett requested their releases, Illinois’ class ranked No. 11 nationally, according to and ESPN.

Tilmon and Pickett have both stated Illinois is still a school they will consider, but other schools are beginning to emerge as new destinations for the two prospects in the rumor mill. With no guarantees that Tilmon or Pickett will return to Illinois, Underwood has a chance to bounce back with a different recruit.

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    Mark Smith has been making a name for himself at Edwardsville High School. The 2017 recipient of Illinois’ Mr. Basketball award, Smith has not committed for next season and has a lot of offers to consider.

    The 6-foot-5 guard has offers from Indiana, Kansas State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois and most recently Kentucky, according to 247sports.

    There’s also a chance Kansas may be gaining interest in Smith.

    Smith averaged about 22 points, eight assists and eight rebounds this season. He poured 45 points in Edwardsville’s sectional final. He’s the real deal.

    After observing a few of Smith’s highlight reels, there are a few things I’ve noticed about his game.

    One of the first things I loved about Smith’s game is his jump shot. His form is pure and smooth. Even on highly contested shots, he keeps himself squared up to the hoop. A strong base and good mechanics give him the strength to light it up from deep. All he needs is a few inches of space for a catch-and-shoot or pull-up jumper, and it’s more often than not money.

    Smith is also powerful. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Smith isn’t afraid to drive the ball to the paint. With such force, it’s hard for defenders to combat it. In one highlight tape, an opposing team’s only attempt at stopping Smith from driving was trying to take a charge each time he drove the ball.

    His passing game may be just as impressive as his scoring. Because of his knack for scoring the ball, Smith drew a lot of double-teams from opponents this season. Rather than trying to be some type of superhero, Smith used his vision to find the open man for the score.

    So does Illinois have a chance at Smith?

    Despite having to compete with Michigan State, Kansas and Kentucky, I still believe Illinois has a shot at reaching a commitment from Smith.

    Smith has an opportunity to be at the helm of an exciting new era of Illinois basketball.

    The words of Underwood and Director of Athletics Josh Whitman have instilled a strong sense of pride back into the Illini. Smith can find himself being a key piece to this rebrand and have an immediate shot at earning playing time.

    The Illini haven’t received a commitment from an Illinois Mr. Basketball winner since 2010. Smith has a chance to reverse this trend and start a new one of his own — one that attracts the top in-state high school talents to attend Illinois.

    Underwood’s style of offense is a great fit for Smith’s game.

    Underwood’s teams have consistently been some of the top-scoring and most efficient offenses in the NCAA.

    Smith’s speed and offensive skill set would sync well with Underwood’s system.

    With the window for recruits to sign their National Letters of Intent quickly closing on May 17, Underwood and his staff will need to act quickly for Smith.

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    Matt is a Junior in Business.