There’s hardly a mystery about the identity of the Belleville News-Democrat’s Class 3A-4A Player of the Year in boys basketball for the 2016-17 season.
Edwardsville senior guard Mark Smith ran away with the award after leading the Tigers to a 30-2 record and becoming one of the most sought-after recruits in metro-east history.
The 6-foot-4 Smith averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 2.1 steals while hitting 44 3-pointers and shooting 82 percent from the free-throw line.
“We just had a great season. That’s what I’ll remember the most,” Smith said. “It was a fun senior season — how I got to play with my friends and teammates on the court and how my coaches helped me become a better basketball player and a better man.”
In a season that featured top-flight talent in the large-school ranks, Smith towered over everyone, securing a spot on the all-state first team and being recognized as Illinois’ Gatorade Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball.
Smith, the son of Anthony and Yvonne, cherishes all the honors.
“I appreciate the coaches in the Southwestern Conference and the (coaches) in the area, that they think I’m a great basketball player,” Smith said. “We played against a lot of great coaches this year. They all had a plan for us and their teams were all really good.
“I just thank God. He’s blessed me (by) letting me be Mr. Basketball, the Gatorade Player of the Year, the Belleville News-Democrat Player of the Year. There’s just so many awards I’ve received. I thank my parents, my teammates and all the coaches for voting for me. It’s been a great year. It’s been a great way for me to go out.”
Smith, already an established player at Edwardsville, gave early indication he was ready to lift his game to another level in the season-opening Highland Thanksgiving Tournament.
In the title game against defending Class 3A state champion Althoff, Smith scored 37 points and made 16 of 22 shots from the field as the Tigers won 81-78.
Smith finished with 104 points, 35 rebounds and 43 assists in the tournament, which also included wins over Waterloo, Carbondale and Highland.
Smith said he believed he could have a big senior season after a shoulder injury and a subsequent decommitment from his baseball scholarship to Missouri allowed him to devote all his attention to basketball.
“I did expect it because I didn’t have to split time between baseball and basketball,” Smith said. “Once I got to work, I expected to get results. It freed up a lot of time for me. I didn’t have to drive over to St. Louis and work with the Pirates most every day. I got to just focus on basketball and I saw a lot of results.”
Symbolic of Smith’s elevation to a different stratosphere was his fourth-quarter dunk against Althoff in the title game of the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic.
Smith was in the open court with nothing but 6-5 senior Edwyn Brown of the Crusaders between him and the basket. Smith drove to the hole, leaped over Brown and finished the jam while being fouled. Smith completed a three-point play that helped produce an 83-75 win.
The play came with then-Illinois coach John Groce and assistant Jamall Walker in the stands.
“I’ll remember that one, too. It was a great moment,” Smith said. “To have a dunk on someone like that ... I was coming on strong then and Coach Groce was there. I don’t even know how to explain it. ... When we beat them, I felt like our whole team got confident after that tournament.”
Smith said he and Brown enjoyed a laugh about the play.
“He just said, ‘Man, you got me,’” Smith said. “Edwyn’s a good basketball player, too. He’s a funny guy.”
Deep 3s, 1,000 points
Many of Smith’s 3-pointers came 5 or 6 feet beyond the arc. If a defender gave Smith breathing room, Smith never hesitated to attempt a long-range bomb.
“I was in the gym a lot with my dad shooting, making 3s (deep) behind the arc, doing things that made me tough to guard,” Smith said. “Sometimes people were like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ But once it went in ... I was confident every time I shot it. I thought it was going in.”
Smith said another highlight of the season was joining the 1,000-point club along with teammates AJ Epenesa and Oliver Stephen. Smith and Epenesa accomplished the feat in the Collinsville-Prairie Farms Holiday Classic; Stephen joined one month later.
“We accomplished something that’s never been done before with three people in the 1,000-point club,” Smith said. “There’s just a lot of great memories and things I’ll remember about the season we had, and I think we had a really special season. Winning with all your friends and joining a prestigious club like that was special.”
Edwardsville’s dominant season was halted with a 76-64 loss to Simeon in Normal Super-Sectional on March 14. Simeon went on to finish second in the state tournament.
“Simeon just played a great game against us, but I thought we definitely had a state championship-caliber team,” Smith said.
Smith is in the closing stages of making a decision that will impact his life for the next four years and beyond.
Within a couple of weeks, he will announce where he will play college basketball. Illinois, Michigan State, Kentucky, Butler, Ohio State, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas State, Northwestern, DePaul, California, Utah and Nebraska are among the schools to offer scholarships.
“There’s so many schools coming in now,” said Smith, adding that he isn’t likely to reveal a list of three finalists before he makes his choice public.
“I’m trying to take a couple more visits,” Smith said. “I’m just getting to know all the coaches. That’s really all I’m doing. I’m trying to find a feel on the best fit for me and what will help me in my basketball career and my life after basketball.
“I’ve got a couple more places I’ve got to go to. I think I’m getting pretty close to the decision I’m going to make.”
Despite the tremendous demands on his time and the pressure of making the final decision, Smith realizes he’s in a position seldom experienced by a high-school athlete.
“I’m doing fine,” Smith said. “I’m having fun with the recruiting process because I know wherever I go, it’s going to be a job.”
2016-17 Belleville News-Democrat
Class 3A-4A Boys Basketball Team
Player of the Year
Mark Smith, Edwardsville, sr.
Coach of the Year
Mike Waldo, Edwardsville
Jordan Goodwin, Althoff, sr.
EJ Liddell, Belleville West, so.
Javon Pickett, Belleville East, sr.
Jeremiah Tilmon, East St. Louis, sr.
AJ Epenesa, Edwardsville, sr.
Thomas Bell, Cahokia, sr.
Tyler Dancy, Belleville West, sr.
Oliver Stephen, Edwardsville, sr.
Jordan Holmes, Columbia, jr.
Terrence Hargrove Jr., East St. Louis, so.
Noah Moss, Triad, sr.
(Players listed in alphabetical order)
Jaquan Adams, Civic Memorial; Marvin Bateman, Althoff; Edwyn Brown, Althoff; Kevin Caldwell, Alton; Arthur Carter, East St. Louis; CJ Coldon, Althoff; Maurice Edwards, Alton; Ross Schrader, Waterloo; Kolby Schulte, Central; Jack Strieker, Central; Rico Sylvester, Belleville East; Parker Weiss, Freeburg.
Previous Large-School Players of the Year
2016: Jordan Goodwin, Althoff
2015: Jordan Goodwin, Althoff
2014: Shawn Roundtree, Edwardsville
2013: Malcolm Hill, Belleville East
2012: Malcolm Hill, Belleville East
2011: Roosevelt Jones, O'Fallon
2010: Roosevelt Jones, O'Fallon
2009: Will Triggs, Edwardsville
2008: Ruben Cotto, Alton
2007: Kavon Lacey, Alton
2006: Dustin Maguire, Edwardsville
2005: Nick Arth, Edwardsville
2004: Kevin Lisch, Althoff
2003: Kevin Lisch, Althoff; J.B. Jones, Belleville West
2002: Vernell Coates, Collinsville
2001: Ramon Kelly, Belleville West
2000: Darius Miles, East St. Louis
1999: Darius Miles, East St. Louis