Missouri’s Mark Smith set to play against his former team, Illinois
As Mark Smith stood on the court at the Enterprise Center on Friday, he didn’t seem like someone who was excited about making Braggin’ Rights history in 24 hours.
Meeting with a scrum of reporters, the former Edwardsville High School star, did his best to avoid the topic everyone else wanted to talk about: A 6-foot-4 sophomore who transferred from Illinois, Smith would become the first player ever to have suited up for both teams in the rivalry’s history.
“I’m just excited to play for Mizzou,” he said.
The Tigers had dropped five straight games in this rivalry, but arrived in St. Louis for Saturday’s reunion riding a four-game winning streak on the season. They ended one streak and stretched another with a 79-63 victory over the Illini.
After losing star player Jontay Porter before the season to injury, a path to the postseason looked bleak for MU, with many calling this a transition year for the Tigers, who will add Evansville transfer Dru Smith and signees Mario McKinney and Tray Jackson next season.
But Missouri’s win over Xavier on Tuesday and the emergence of Mark Smith — Mr. Illinois Basketball his senior year at Edwardsville in 2017 — have changed that.
Smith entered the Braggin’ Rights showdown second on the Tigers in scoring and rebounding with 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. After shooting 23 percent from three-point territory as a freshman at Illinois, he is one of the nation’s top sharpshooters this season. He has hit three-pointers at a 47 percent clip.
Smith shot 2 of 8 from the field Saturday, including one 3-pointer, to finish with five points.
The win puts Missouri in better position for a possible NIT or NCAA Tournament bid later in the season. But the game wouldn’t have carried that importance if it weren’t for Smith.
As a kid, Smith excelled enough in baseball and basketball that coaches in both refrained from telling him to pick one. When he was 15, radar guns clocked his fastball in the high-80s, which eventually led him to commit to Missouri for baseball. But his size and scoring ability made him a college basketball prospect on the radar of most mid-major schools.
“He never got the chance to play AAU basketball because he was playing AAU baseball,” Smith’s father, Anthony, said. “The basketball stuff was on the backburner.”
The summer before his senior season, Smith suffered a strained flexor pronator in his pitching arm. He was unable to throw the rest of the summer, so he decided to play AAU basketball.
Smith quickly picked up interest from Wright State, Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, where his mother had been a 1,000-point scorer. He took official visits to all three.
After his senior season of basketball, though, he wasn’t considering any of them. He had turned himself into a recruit weighing offers from blueblood programs.
Early in the season, Smith’s high school coach Mike Waldo, now an assistant coach at SIUE, recalls Smith driving straight down the lane and throwing down a thunderous dunk. At one point, his head was above the rim, the coach claimed.
“He’d never done that before,” Waldo said. “That told me right there he was going to have a special season.”
Smith averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game as a senior while leading Edwardsville High School in Illinois to a 30-2 record. He was named Mr. Basketball in the state and became the hottest recruit in the country during the spring signing period.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski all talked to him. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin visited Smith days after becoming the Tigers’ head coach.
But Smith wanted to stay home and go to Illinois, which he always considered a dream school.
“Just because a program is considered more big time, he didn’t look at it like he had to go there,” Waldo said. “He wanted to go somewhere where he would be happy.”
Smith committed to Illinois and looked like a completely different player as a freshman. He mostly struggled and finished with averages of 5.8 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game in his lone season at Illinois.
Opinions vary on what went wrong for Smith at Illinois. Some say he didn’t fit in first-year coach Brad Underwood’s system. Since Underwood was hired around the same time as Martin was at Missouri, Smith didn’t have an established relationship with him before committing.
In March, Smith announced his intention to transfer at the end of the season, after weeks of rumors swirling about his unhappiness in Champaign.
“We’re beyond Illinois,” Anthony Smith said, who, like his son, took the high road when talking about Illinois.. “He doesn’t have any issues with the university. It just wasn’t a good fit at Illinois. Cuonzo is a different coach. Mark’s just responding to Coach Martin’s style.”
Smith transferred to Missouri in April. He spent the whole summer working with MU assistant coach Cornell Mann to address his shooting woes. He got into the gym early in the morning with fellow newcomers Javon Pickett, who he knew as an conference opponent at Belleville East, and Xavier Pinson.
The Smiths were expecting Mark to sit out the season, but Mark benefited from the NCAA’s recent uptick in approval of immediate eligibility for transfers, thanks in part to cooperation from Underwood. Smith had 19 points and 10 rebounds in his Missouri debut against Central Arkansas, and he hasn’t looked back.
Smith has plenty of company in Illinois’ doghouse, as Jeremiah Tilmon and Pickett were both Illinois signees before flipping to Mizzou.
In the 2017 Braggin’ Rights game, Illini fans booed Tilmon every time he touched the ball. When Smith was introduced to the Missouri media in early November, he was more open to talking about facing his old team than he was on Friday. Back then, he remembered the boos Tilmon received and smiled.
“I’ll be expecting the same treatment,” Smith said.