College Sports

Edwardsville's Smith leaving Illinois basketball program

Mark Smith is transferring from the University of Illinois after one season.
Mark Smith is transferring from the University of Illinois after one season. AP

Edwardsville High School graduate Mark Smith is leaving the University of Illinois men's basketball program after one season.

The news was first confirmed by Smith's mother, Yvonne, and later by Smith himself.

"I just didn't fit the system," Mark Smith said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. "I wish the team the best of luck, but I just don't think I fit the system. I wish Coach (Brad) Underwood the best of luck.

"I'm going to keep working out, keep working on my basketball game. Hopefully, I'll talk to some schools when I get released (from my scholarship)."

Illinois later announced Smith's departure from the program, adding that he would receive a full release.

"We thank Mark for the effort and contributions he made to our team this year," Underwood said in a statement released by the university. "We wish him nothing but the best as he continues to pursue his dreams."

Smith confirmed the Illini did not block him from joining any other program after he sits out the NCAA-mandated one year. If Smith signs with another Division I school, he will be eligible to play again in the 2019-20 season. He said he expects Illinois to release him from his scholarship in the next couple of days.

Smith, a 6-foot-4 guard, was a highly decorated recruit who signed with the Illini in April after being named Mr. Basketball in Illinois and the state's Gatorade Player of the Year. He averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 2.1 steals for the Tigers.

Smith chose Illinois over Michigan State, Kentucky and Ohio State.

Smith also had offers from Indiana, Kansas State, Missouri, Butler, Nebraska, Texas, Northwestern, California, DePaul, Utah, Boston College and Georgia Tech and many mid-majors, but selected the Illini and Underwood, who was hired after just one season at Oklahoma State.

Smith said he is upbeat about his future.

"I'm in good spirits," he said. "I think I made a good decision for myself. I know Illinois will do great. Coach Underwood will find the pieces to develop for his system. I look forward to the next step. I'm excited, wherever I (might) end up. I know I'll be good in the future with this."

Smith said his year at Illinois was "a good time."

"I love the university, but this is not going to work out for me here," Smith said. "I'll miss my teammates a lot. I talked to all those guys and we're still going to keep in contact. I was good friends with Leron Black and my roommate, Da'Monte (Williams). Everyone on the team, I've been good friends with. We've been through a lot this year."

Former Illinois coach John Groce, who was fired last March 11, made the initial scholarship offer to Smith.

"I'm excited," Smith said the day he signed with Illinois. "I think we're going to be really good. Just to play for Coach Underwood, he has a good plan for me. There's a blueprint, and I think we're going to win a lot. I'm excited to play there, and we've got good players."

Smith started 16 of the Illini's first 17 games, and scored in double figures in four of his first five games, including a season-high 21 points in an 82-73 win over visiting DePaul on Nov. 17.

Smith scored 17 points in an 82-69 victory at UNLV on Dec. 10, and had 11 points in the Braggin' Rights win over Missouri on Dec. 23. Smith's final start game Jan. 24 when he had two points in a come-from-behind 73-71 victory over visiting Indiana. He scored no more than eight points in his final 17 games as his playing time was greatly reduced.

Smith finished with averages of 5.8 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 0.6 steals.

It was a difficult season for the Illini, who were overpowered in the paint and stumbled to a 14-18 record and a 4-14 mark in the Big Ten. The Illini lost to Iowa 96-87 in the conference tournament, ending any slim hopes of a postseason appearance. Illinois hasn't been in the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

Smith initially committed to Missouri as a pitcher in baseball. But an elbow injury and the departure of Tigers coach Tim Jamieson led Smith to opt out.