Looks Like University Of Illinois - Mark Smith
This whole thing was a shot in the arm for me. I've mostly taken April "off" this year (instead of my usual May break), and I've felt the batteries recharging this last week. Today, a jolt of energy: Illini basketball stared down the blue bloods and won.
Let's start there. This needs to be emphasized. This is the whole thing right here:
Kentucky offered Mark Smith.
Michigan State offered, had him in for an official visit, and even came to Edwardsville for two in-homes.
Ohio State offered, traveled to four of his high school games, and had him on campus for an official visit.
Indiana, Missouri, Northwestern, Cal, Kansas State, Butler, Texas - so many schools offered Mark Smith this spring.
Even Duke sent Jon Scheyer for an in-home visit last week (with Coach K famously joining by phone).
And he picked Illinois.
I want to start there because you might not fully understand what happened tonight. You might just casually glance at recruiting rankings, see that he's #74 in the composite rankings, and think "OK, so a player around the talent level of Tracy Abrams or Myke Henry - lower half of the top-100". Sure, OK, but no. I'm not sure the rankings properly reflect his talent level. I think you have to look at the offer list first and the rankings second.
Why the rankings second? Because most of the people who compile those lists have never seen Mark Smith play. This was a player who was more or less completely unknown 100 days ago, a kid who was headed to Missouri to play baseball and had only dabbled in the AAU basketball circuit. An elbow injury slowed his baseball dreams and flipped his efforts back towards basketball, and then this winter he burst onto the scene, going from complete unknown to best player in the state in only four months.
Yes, best player in the state (voted Mr. Basketball). Yes, best player in the state (a better offer list than Jeremiah Tilmon, Jordan Goodwin, or Nojel Eastern). This is not the 74th-best player in the country. With those offers and a Mr. Basketball title, I really think we're talking about a top-35 player here.
And when you look at it like that, my goodness what a start for Brad Underwood. Michigan State was offering immediate minutes on a team that is a Final Four favorite next season. Ohio State was offering up the reins to their offense. KENTUCKY strolled into Edwardsville and offered him. And he went with Brad Underwood.
I really do think he chose Illinois because of Underwood. I had the chance to interview Mark Smith after the commitment ceremony, so you can hear for yourself how Underwood was a big part of his decision:
Driving away from the ceremony, I was stuck on the fact that he grew up "watching Kentucky and Duke", had Kentucky and Duke coaches in his living room in the last month, and picked Illinois. I asked the Illini fan question expecting him to say something like "well, I was only 8 years old but I remember Dee Brown", but instead he said he grew up watching Kentucky and Duke... and he said this while wearing an Illini hat because he just committed to Brad Underwood over Kentucky and Duke.
And it's hard not to get excited thinking about Smith in this offense. Just watch what Underwood did last year with Jawun Evans at Oklahoma State and then imagine Mark Smith doing the same in Champaign. If this is truly a "four out, one in" offense, then this crop of guards in the 2017 class (Smith, Trent Frazier, and Da'Monte Williams) have gotten the "four out" part off to a rousing start.
Now, I don't want us to get ahead of ourselves (OK, fine, I don't want myself to get ahead of myself). He'll still be a freshman this fall, and almost all freshmen go through an adjustment period. This is a player who has serious potential to be a first-team all-conference player some day, but that's probably not going to happen as a freshman.
So yes, it might take a bit, but... I'm really excited about the future of this team offensively. The whole "we want to score in the first seven seconds of the shot clock" thing, where Underwood likes to get out and run and score before the defense is set? Having guards like Smith, Frazier, Williams, and Lucas (plus JCL for two years) will really help in accomplishing that. Some will do a little better than we expect, while some will do a little worse, but the key is that we've stacked guards here. Out of those five listed above, we're going to find a really good backcourt.
Let's get to the Tom Cruises. This one is clear. Brad Underwood hit a home run with his first recruit. I said a few weeks ago (before Kentucky got involved) that Mark Smith provided a great early test for Underwood's recruiting. Could he somehow land Mr. Basketball within the first six weeks on the job? The answer: a resounding yes. Sorry Kentucky, bye-bye Izzo - Mark Smith, a 4.5 Tom Cruise recruit, is headed to Champaign.