It hasn’t taken long for Edwardsville High School graduate Mark Smith to make an impression on first-year Illinois men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood.
Underwood on Wednesday lauded Smith, a 6-foot-4 guard who on April 26 signed with Illinois over Michigan State, Duke, Kentucky, Ohio State and many others.
Smith averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.9 assists and 2.1 steals as a senior with the Tigers, developing into an elite prospect and later being honored with the prestigious Mr. Basketball award, presented annually to the top player in Illinois.
“That’s recognized by you, his peers, other coaches,” Underwood told reporters Wednesday at Illinois’ annual media day in Champaign. “You’re talking about a young man that fits the bill that everybody wants the University of Illinois to have in terms of the title and Mr. Basketball.
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“(But) for me, it’s much greater. The title, I don’t even talk about it anymore. I talk about him as the young man that’s got high character, I talk about him as the young man who’s a relentless worker, I talk about his gifts. That will play out for us long, long after the title of Mr. Basketball. His meaning to our program goes way beyond just that. He’s a tremendous young man (with) tremendous pride. He wants to see this university be great and he’s not afraid to be a focal point or the face of doing that.”
“You’re going to see Mark at the point, you’re going to see him around the wings,” Underwood said. “We’ve been really messing with him a lot in post-ups ... and ball screens. There’s not one area I’m going to limit Mark to. He’s going to be that guy who is a matchup nightmare because of his strength and athleticism. It’s my job to try to take advantage of that.
“I think you could see us literally play Mark at any position on the court. He’s got that kind of versatility.”
Smith, a former pitcher, had given a verbal commitment to Missouri’s baseball program. But he opted out of his scholarship because of an elbow injury and the departure of coach Tim Jamieson. It was at that point that Smith’s basketball career began to take shape.
“He’s concentrated on one sport and it’s changed his body,” Underwood said. “He’s as lean as he’s ever been at 216, maybe 217 (pounds). He’s managing his diet. He’s not bullying people anymore. Now he’s got to make basketball plays. He’s been very gifted with his body and his athleticism to where he could do whatever he wanted physically.
“Now that’s not the case. So mentally, he’s growing all the time. ... His growth is very much physical and he’s changed his body. He’s concentrating. He is an unrelenting worker. That’s why I know he’s going to have a great year and he’s going to be successful.”
Underwood said Smith is a fast learner, which speaks to his natural instincts on the floor.
“He’s also going to be that guy who is going to do some things and you’re going to say, ‘Wow,’ in a negative way,” Underwood said. “Then you won’t see him make those mistakes again because he’s got that innate ability to learn from that and do that very quickly.”
Smith avoided injury in a recent practice when he collided with 6-1 sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas, who wasn’t as fortunate. Lucas, who averaged 4.8 points and 3.1 assists last season, entered concussion protocol and hasn’t practiced since the mishap.
Smith is part of a freshman group that includes 6-1 guard Trent Frazier, 6-3 guard Da’Monte Williams and 6-9 forwards Matic Vesel and Greg Eboigbodin.
“The freshmen truly are going through a big adjustment,” Underwood said. “They don’t know very much at this point. There’s a steep, steep learning curve for freshmen. Every day, they’re getting better. Their effort has been off the charts.”
Illinois opens its season Nov. 10 against visiting Southern University.