Smith transfers to Missouri

Smith transfers to Missouri

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CHAMPAIGN — The 2019 Braggin’ Rights game is more than 20 months away.

But the annual pre-Christmas men’s basketball staple involving Illinois and Missouri added another layer to its long-standing rivalry this weekend.

Former Illinois guard Mark Smith announced late Saturday night via his Twitter account that he is transferring to Missouri. The move comes almost six weeks after the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Smith decided to transfer from Illinois on March 5 after only one season with the Illini. Illinois did not place any restrictions on where Smith could transfer once he was granted his release from his scholarship at Illinois.

“I have big news I’d love to share with everyone,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “I have committed to the University of Mizzou. Please respect my decision. First, I’d like to thank God for giving me my talents. Second of all, I’d like to thank my family. I couldn’t have made (it) here without them. Thank you for all the love and support. I cannot wait to rock the gold and black jerseys next year.”

Smith will have to sit out next season per NCAA transfer rules, but will have three seasons of eligibility with the Tigers, starting with the 2019-2020 season. 

Smith made an official visit to Missouri this weekend before deciding to commit late Saturday night. The Edwardsville product initially committed to play baseball at Missouri during his junior year of high school before arm injuries surfaced. He then chose to fully stick with basketball, a move that paid off in a big way during his senior season at Edwardsville. Smith averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 2.1 steals during his final high school season, earning 2017 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year and Illinois Mr. Basketball accolades.

His rapid rise on the court saw blood-blue programs like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State enter the recruiting fray last spring, but he picked the Illini in late April 2017, a little more than a month after Illinois landed Brad Underwood as its coach.

Expectations were high for Smith before he even played a game at Illinois.

“Mark’s very special,” Underwood said in mid-October at the Big Ten’s media days. “It’s unfair for me to compare him, but I do compare him a little bit to Jason Kidd back in the day. He’s got that type of athleticism. More importantly, his natural instincts are to lead.”

Smith registered double-digit scoring totals in four of his first games at Illinois, including a career-high 21 points in an 82-73 win against DePaul on Nov. 17, but he eventually lost his spot in the starting lineup, finishing up with 19 starts, while dealing with flu-like symptoms for part of Big Ten play. 

Smith played well in his first Braggin’ Rights game, scoring 11 points during the Illini’s 70-64 win against Missouri on Dec. 23 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, the fifth straight victory by Illinois in the series between the two neighboring rivals that has been played every year since 1983. But that production was inconsistent the rest of the season, and after he transferred, Smith told reporters Underwood’s style of play didn’t fit him.

“I wish all the players the best of luck, but I just don’t fit the system,” Smith told the Alton Telegraph on March 5, the day his transfer became public. “Coach Underwood, he’s going to get people that fit his system. I love the University of Illinois. I love that I was excited going there. It just wasn’t meant to be.” 

Smith’s transfer was the first domino to fall in the Illini’s roster reshuffling since Illinois ended the 2017-18 season with a 96-87 loss to Iowa on Feb. 28 during the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Leron Black opted to turn pro in mid-March, with Michael Finke and Te’Jon Lucas both announcing on March 26 they will transfer away from Illinois. 

With all the departures and the six-man Class of 2018 that Illinois has signed — highlighted by five-star Chicago Morgan point guard Ayo Dosumnu — Illinois currently has one open scholarship for the 2018-19 season.

“You want commitment in every facet,” Underwood said on April 2 during an appearance on ‘The News-Gazette Sports Page,’ radio show. “When you’re at this level one of the true challenges is winning, and winning’s hard. You fight for your culture, and you fight for what you believe in. Individual players are going to do the same thing. All we look for is young people who want to play for Illinois. They want to play for the name on the front (of the jersey). We want them both feet in and committed to winning. That’s something that will always be a big part of our recruiting and our principles.”