After turning in a phenomenal senior season during which he helped lead Edwardsville to a 30-2 record and spot in the Class 4A super-sectional, senior guard Mark Smith on Monday was named 2016-17 Gatorade Illinois Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
He is the first player from Edwardsville chosen for the honor, which recognizes athletic excellence along with academics and character on and off the court. The award also puts Smith in the running for the Gatorade National Player of the Year honor, which will be announced later this month.
“It’s a great honor,” said Smith, who was contacted by Gatorade officials Monday morning letting him know he was the winner. “Just to win an award like that is a great feeling to see all my hard work paying off.”
A 6-foot-4 guard with more than a dozen Division I scholarship offers from Illinois and other programs, Smith averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 2.1 steals. He also had 44 3-pointers.
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The object of intense recruiting scrutiny as one of the top unsigned players in the Midwest, Smith said new Illinois coach Brad Underwood and new Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin each gave him a phone call on the day they were hired.
“(Coach Underwood) called me the day he got hired, when they put it all out there,” Smith said. “(Coach Martin) called me on Wednesday when he got hired. He recruited me in the summer a little bit with California and we talked a little bit in the fall and the winter. We’ve built up a relationship.”
Smith also has a good relationship with Illini assistant coach Jamall Walker and Martin’s assistant coach coming with him from California to Mizzou, Tracy Webster.
“Coach Walker recruited me really hard and I still talk to him,” Smith said. “We still talk every day and we talked about the new coach. It’s not an easy decision, but I’m blessed to have all these schools after me. Hopefully I can pick one soon.”
Among the schools Smith is still considering are Illinois, Missouri, Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State, Kansas State and Butler.
Smith has been to an Illini game and said he plans on taking several school visits. The timing isn’t clear with some schools still participating in the NCAA Tournament or the National Invitation Tournament and Indiana still needing to hire a new head coach after former coach Tom Crean and the Hoosiers parted ways.
Smith would like to have things wrapped up by the next NCAA signing date April 12.
He knows that with every day he waits, the speculation grows. Once Smith de-committed from his original verbal commitment to play baseball at Missouri, his basketball recruiting took off in almost unprecedented fashion.
From his first big game this season, when he scored 37 points in a November win against Althoff, a steady stream of major college head coaches and assistants have beaten a path to Edwardsville practices and games.
Smith is on everyone’s radar now.
“I try not to pay attention to it,” said Smith, who may take a visit or two this weekend. “The Illinois and Missouri fans show me a lot of love on Twitter, but I’m just trying to focus on what I’m doing. I’m focused on my grades, that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t get old to me or bother me much. I like when the fans tweet at me.”
Smith was humbled to be at the top of the list with so many other great players in the state this season. He also figures to be among the front-runners for Mr. Basketball, an award voted on by state media members and presented by the Chicago Tribune.
“It’s great because there’s so many good players in Illinois,” Smith said of the Gatorade award. “Jordan Goodwin, Jeremiah (Tilmon), Justin Smith, Evan Gilyard, Nana Akenten, Javon Pickett ... to win over those guys, it’s real exciting to show I can play basketball and have talent to play at the next level.
“It’s all due to my teammates helping me, A.J. (Epenesa), Oliver (Stephen), Jack (Marinko) and Caleb (Strohmeier). They help me a lot.”
Smith scored a career-high 45 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a March 10 sectional playoff win over Danville and reached 30 or more points eight times. His season included two triple-doubles (double figures in points, rebounds and another category), 14 double-doubles and tournament Most Valuable Player honors in three tourneys in which the Tigers participated.
Smith is also active in Edwardsville’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter and volunteers as a youth basketball and youth baseball coach. He carries a 3.24 grade-point average.
By winning the Gatorade Player of the Year award, Smith can choose a local or national youth sports organization to receive a $1,000 grant. Like the other state Players of the Year, Smith will have an opportunity to compete for another $10,000 “spotlight grant” by writing an essay explaining why his selected organization deserves more support.
Other recent Illinois Gatorade Boys Basketball Players of the Year include Charlie Moore (Morgan Park), two-time winner Jalen Brunson (Stevenson), Jabari Parker (Simeon) and Derrick Rose (Simeon).