Smith: 'We're going to be really good'

Smith: 'We're going to be really good'

EDWARDSVILLE — Mark Smith made his first unofficial visit to Illinois on Jan. 1 and got his scholarship offer from then coach John Groce after the Illini beat Ohio State.

The Edwardsville guard visited again in early February. And again last week — one more unofficial visit that simply reinforced what he already believed.

Illinois was for him.

Smith heard the pitch from a pair of blue bloods and a perennial Big Ten title contender. Kentucky and Michigan State both offered. Duke came in late with some interest and an in-home visit.

But Illinois — even after the coaching change from Groce to Brad Underwood — remained in the picture. Last week’s visit sealed the deal, and Smith announced his decision to attend Illinois and play for Underwood on Wednesday evening during a ceremony at Lucco-Jackson Gym in Edwardsville.

“Coach Underwood, he said I made his day, and it was great to see my name on that line on the National Letter of Intent,” Smith said.

He told Underwood his decision Monday and faxed his signed NLI to Illinois on Wednesday morning while also informing the coaches at Michigan State and Duke — his two other finalists — of his decision.

“I’m just glad I built a great relationship with (Underwood),” Smith said. “His offense and what he has planned, the players coming back and players coming in, we’re going to be really good.”

Smith is also embracing the challenge of returning Illinois to a higher level.

The Illini scuffled in the past two seasons under Groce. Losing one-time 2017 signees Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett after the coaching change was another blow.

“I want a challenge like that,” Smith said. “That pressure doesn’t really faze me. I’ve got one goal. I’m going to play my game and just win. That’s what I want to do.”

Smith’s announcement mirrored how he approached his recruitment — even as it jumped from official visits to mid-majors like Wright State in the fall to an in-home visit from Kentucky coach John Calipari and a FaceTime conversation with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in the past month.

Low key.

Smith sat in front of a sizable crowd alongside his parents and siblings.

After thanking his parents and coaches among others, his reveal was removing his black Edwardsville jacket to reveal a white Illinois short-sleeve polo while putting on a blue Illini hat.

Anthony Smith, Mark’s dad, said it was weight lifted from the family’s shoulders.

His mom, Yvonne, joked she was happy the decision was made so her phone — constantly buzzing or ringing the past few months — would get a break.

Both see Illinois as a good fit for their son. Mostly because it was his decision.

“We would put our opinion in, but we never wanted to persuade him,” Yvonne Smith said. “In the end, it had to be his decision. His heart was always with Illinois. I just think he chose the right place. He’s going to school for himself and not mom or dad.”

Anthony Smith said his advice to his son was simple.

“What does your gut tell you? What does your heart tell you?” Anthony Smith said. “In the end, he picked the school that he wanted to pick. Mark picked it. We said, ‘Hey, if you like it, we love it.’ ”
Anthony Smith, who coaches the boys’ basketball team at Metro East Lutheran in Edwardsville, just down the street from where his son played, saw Illinois as a good fit basketball-wise, too.

“They’re rebuilding over there,” Anthony Smith said. “They’ve got a new coach in there. I think if you can get Mr. Basketball in there with (the returning players) and the people coming in they’re going to be competitive.

“He talked to Kipper (Nichols) and some of the other guys on the team. He and Trent (Frazier) talk all the time. It was pretty much a done deal. We just hadn’t told anybody.”

Next up for Smith is a turn as a recruiter himself, turning his attention to Tilmon and Pickett, who he called his “good friends.”

Neither has committed or signed elsewhere since receiving their NLI releases from Illinois earlier this month.

“Oh yeah, I’m going to talk to them,” he said. “I feel like we have a great class with Trent and Da’Monte (Williams). It was important to come in and make an impact. That played a part of my decision, but also playing with good players. They’ve got a lot of great players coming back and also great players coming in.”