Since he was in the fifth grade, Malachi Smith regarded Tarkus Ferguson as a big brother — somebody he could talk to about basketball, recruiting, school and any other stressors the two had in common.
“I still talk to him once a week, or at least every other week,” said Smith. “We’ve got that bond.”
But beyond their frequent training sessions at local gyms, the two products of Belleville high school basketball rarely have had the chance to set foot together on the same court.
It’s been almost three years, but the two fast friends finally will get to compete against each other again, this time on national television. Ferguson’s Illinois-Chicago Flames will travel to Dayton, Ohio, to face Smith and the Wright State Raiders in the Horizon League opener.
The game will tip off at 6 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.
Smith and Ferguson were members of the same local AAU club, Jets-Ramey United, but were usually separated by their two years difference in age. And they faced each other in a 2016 high school game when Ferguson’s Althoff Crusaders defeated Smith’s Belleville East Lancers, 79-60.
Ferguson graduated and moved on to UIC while Smith transferred across town to West for his senior year, just in time for the Maroons’ state championship run.
Smith said he’s excited about Friday’s televised reunion.
“I’m always playing against him because whenever we’re both in town we go to a gym and hoop,” Smith said. “Our parents are real close, so it’s like we grew up together. I’m really looking forward to having him here and seeing him on our college court.”
So is Ferguson, who said the two have long talked about what it would be like to play on the same college court.
“Hopefully we’ll get to guard each other and back up some of that trash talk we’ve been giving going back to high school,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Ferguson, a junior who helped the Althoff Crusaders to their 2016 IHSA 3A championship, quickly cracked the starting lineup at UIC.
The 6-foot-4 guard last season ranked second among Horizon League freshmen in scoring (11.2 ppg) and first in rebounds (5.3). His 5.4 assists per game led the conference and his 177 total assists was the sixth most in UIC history.
The 2016 Althoff graduate also ranked second in the Horizon League in steals at 1.4 per game.
A fracture right foot slowed him down as a sophomore and cost him 12 games altogether. But through 13 non-conference games this year, he’s averaging 15.7 points, shooting 43 of 105 from 3-point range. Ferguson’s 13 blocks and 6.6 rebounds lead the team. Ferguson also has topped 20 points five times, including a season-high 25 against William and Mary.
Ferguson said he stayed in close contact last season, especially as the college recruiters began to take notice. Those conversations have continued as Smith made his transition from the high school to the NCAA Division-1 game.
“I told him it’s way more physical in college ball than it is in high school and that the defense is way, way more intense. You have to play a much faster game,” Ferguson said. “I have no doubt he’ll make that transition, but it takes some time to get used to the speed.”
Smith, still a true freshman, hasn’t yet cracked the Raiders’ starting five, but is seeing significant minutes, including a season-high 24 against Northwestern Ohio Dec. 13. He scored a season-best 10 points in his debut, a Nov. 7 Dayton win over Western Carolina, and is averaging 3.3 points per game.
Wright State coach Scott Nagy has heralded Smith’s defense and ball-handling ability and told the Dayton Daily News it won’t be long before the freshman is seeing starter-type minutes.
“Coach told me when they recruited me I’d have a chance to play right away,” said Smith, who averaged 15.3 points per game for the state champions last year. “I get more minutes in some games than in others, but when coach calls my name, I just make sure I’m ready. I’m happy with my role right now.”
Both teams enter their Horizon League openers with a 6-7 record, though Wright State is the favorite to win the conference, according to the preseason poll of its coaches.
Both Smith and Ferguson were in Belleville briefly for Christmas, but didn’t have the time to get together.
“I’m happy for him. He’s elevated his game so much,” Smith said of Ferguson. “He puts the work in so I’m not surprised. I hope we can slow him down tomorrow, though.
“But, don’t get me wrong, when we talk I always let him know I’m proud of him. When I see him on our court, I’ll tell him again.”
OTHERS ON TELEVISION
Former metro-east football standouts will be be participating in college bowl games over the holiday weekend, all of which will be televised. They include:
AUSTIN SEIBERT, who now holds the NCAA record for PATs and the career scoring record for both the University of Oklahoma and the Big 12 Conference, will be kicking in the Orange Bowl Dec. 29. The No. 4 Sooners (12-1) take on the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
METRO-EAST TIGERS: Several former metro-east players will be with the Missouri Tigers (8-4) when they face Oklahoma State at the Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31. The game kicks off at 3:45 p.m. on ESPN. Included will be East St. Louis High School graduates Terry Beckner Jr. and Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms, as well as junior kicker Tucker McCann, an O’Fallon graduate.
AJ EPENESA: A 2017 graduate of Edwardsville High School, Epenesa will be with the Iowa Hawkeyes’ starting defensive front when they face Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. Kickoff is noon on New Year’s Day and will be televised on ESPN 2. The Belleville East marching band will be included in pregame and halftime shows.