College basketball extra: Smith staying home to 'represent'

College basketball extra: Smith staying home to 'represent'

Every other Sunday in the offseason, college basketball writer Scott Richey provides a page of news and analysis. Want more? Richey chats at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at


State’s Mr. Basketball feeling comfortable with pick, thanks to help from ex-Illini Hill, others

EDWARDSVILLE — Malcolm Hill was home in the Metro East on Wednesday but had to return to Champaign before Mark Smith's college announcement. So he told his mom, Machanda, she should go in his stead.

There's an indelible link between the two families. Both Hill and Smith's fathers have known each other for years. Hill's younger brother, Clayton, is also friends with Smith.

And Hill's basketball career — from Belleville East to Illinois — was one Smith grew up watching. So there's a reason Smith thanked Hill when he signed with the Illini on Wednesday, more closely linking the two Metro East basketball standouts.

"Malcolm is a role model to me," Smith said. "I watched him growing up. Seeing his success (at Illinois) and what he's done, I feel like I can do that.

"It was important talking with Malcolm. He gave me his input and what he thought. He thought I could do good things there and he said, 'Represent the 618.' That's what I'm going to do — come in and represent my state and where I'm from."

Anthony Smith, Mark's dad, said he's "a Malcolm Hill fan." Now the boys' basketball coach at Edwardsville Metro East Lutheran, he said he tried to get the Belleville East job when Hill was a senior.

Hill proved to be an important sounding board for Smith.

"Malcolm and Mark are kind of a mesh about their personalities," Anthony Smith said. "He talked to Malcolm a little bit about the process and the whole deal. It was good. He has Malcolm's number so he can call and talk to him if he has questions."

Perhaps questions like how to deal with the spotlight that will be cast on Smith when he arrives at Illinois. Hill, by nature, is fairly reserved, but the now-former Illinois guard was thrust to the forefront of the Illini — particularly in his final two seasons, when he climbed the ladder to third on Illinois' all-time career scoring list.

Smith has a similar low-key personality. The Illinois Mr. Basketball winner and 2017 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year might not get a chance to wait on the spotlight either. Not when his final unofficial visit to Illinois was dubbed on social media as "Mark Smith Day."

There's plenty of interest in the 6-foot-5, four-star guard already.

"I go, 'Dude, you're already a legend over there and you haven't even been there yet. You better put up some numbers over there or they're going to be booing you,' " Anthony Smith joked.

Smith, though, isn't feeling any pressure from the weight of expectations now on his shoulders. He got a kick out of the tweets from Illinois fans and the photo "edits" of himself in Illinois jerseys.

"It's a great feeling, them showing you love," Smith said. "I don't see any pressure with that. I'm just going to go in and play my game — go out and play hard every night and try to win. That's my mindset. I like that pressure."

The consensus from those close to Smith is the same. He'll handle any new pressure playing at Illinois and in the Big Ten the same way he handled his recruitment — even when it skyrocketed in the final month, with Michigan State making a strong bid and Duke and Kentucky in the mix.

"They were all pushing for him," said Yvonne Smith, Mark's mom. "He was really grounded, I thought. I don't think he ever got frazzled or got caught up in a school's name or a school's coach."

Felipe Phillips is an "uncle" to the Smith family, having been longtime friends with Anthony Smith. Now an assistant coach at Springfield Lanphier, Phillips dealt with some bigger recruitments when he was coaching in Decatur, including MacArthur's Marcus Bartley to Saint Louis and Eisenhower's Lewis Jackson to Purdue.

"They were high recruits, but this was to a whole other level," Phillips said. "When you're in the national scene and an All-American, the recruiting process gets real stressful and grimy. It does. He handled it well. He really did. He was loyal to everybody and was respectful to all the coaches. I'm just happy he got a chance to stay at home."

So is Illinois coach Brad Underwood. The new Illini leader was hired March 18 and had some ground to make up in Smith's recruitment while Hall of Famers Tom Izzo, John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski entered the picture.

"I think that it's a process of building a relationship," Underwood said. "I'm a relationship guy. You're coming in in a very quick manner when there's a coaching change. I felt good. I don't think I'm ever confident until that name is on the dotted line in recruiting."

While Underwood felt good about the relationship he was building with Smith in the month between his hiring and Smith making his decision, Smith was feeling the same thing. Underwood also had one thing going for him the others didn't —coaching at Illinois.

"I always had a love for Illinois," Smith said. "The fans showing me love, and talking to Coach Underwood, that was the best fit for me.

"I know he's going to push me to be a better basketball player. We've built a great relationship. We started talking every day, and I already have a great relationship with (Illinois assistant) Coach (Jamall) Walker. I knew right then we'd be great for each other."

Phillips was present for a couple of Underwood's in-home visits with the Smith family. He sees the Illini and Smith as a good fit, too.

"(Underwood's) offensive system is high-octane," Phillips said. "The ball is going to be in Mark's hands. The focus point is going to be on him. The reason why is because he does a lot of great things with the ball. He can shoot it. He can pass it. He's always two or three steps ahead."

That's the way Smith likes it. He wants to earn his spot at Illinois, but once he does he has big plans.

"I feel like I can come in and make plays," he said. "I always want to win. I'm going to do anything I can to win, and I feel like that's what I'm going to do at Illinois — get us back to how it was with Deron Williams and Dee Brown."

That would be music to his mom's ears. Yvonne Smith said she was a big fan of Brown and Williams and, before that, the Flyin' Illini when she was younger. She was also pleased her son would be a part of the Illinois program.

"It's great to play for the state university," she said. "I think it's an honor. I really do believe that. When you're Mr. Basketball and you can stay in the state and represent the state, I think that's special."


Selected by the stars
Mark Smith is the first Illinois Mr. Basketball to sign with the Illini since 2010. Here’s how the last five who did the same fared in their time in Champaign-Urbana:

Frank Williams, 1998
Williams’ three-year Illini career saw him claim Big Ten Player of the Year and AP third-team All-America honors in 2001. The 6-foot-3 guard was the No. 25 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft and played three seasons in the league. His son, Da’Monte, is part of Illinois’ 2017 class.

Brian Cook, 1999
The Lincoln standout made for three straight Mr. Basketball winners to pick the Illini (along with Williams and Sergio McClain). Cook is now No. 5 on the all-time career scoring list, was a No. 24 overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers and spent nine seasons in the NBA.

Dee Brown, 2002
Two-time All-American and 2005 Big Ten and Sporting News Player of the Year was the No. 3 all-time scorer in program history before getting passed by Malcolm Hill this past season. Brown was the 46th pick in the 2006 NBA Draft and played until 2015, with stops in the NBA and overseas.

Brandon Paul, 2009
A 1,654-point scorer in four seasons at Illinois, the Gurnee Warren product broke into Illinois’ top-10 all-time scorers after tallying 1,067 points as a junior and senior. Paul now plays for Anadolu Efes in Turkey after stints in Russia, the NBA D-League (Canton Charge) and Spain.

Jereme Richmond, 2010
Also the last McDonald’s All-American to pick the Illini, Richmond declared for the NBA draft following his freshman season but was not selected. The Waukegan grad was arrested multiple times between 2011 and 2013 and spent a year in prison for harassment of a witness. He currently plays professionally in the Dominican Republic.


This week: While the Class of 2018 stars are showcasing their talents on various AAU circuits, the 2017 class is a month away from hitting campus. Here’s the 10 best (per 247Composite rankings) headed to the Big Ten:

Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State
The 6-foot-10 forward rose into top 10 nationally based on breakout 2016 summer and one season at La Lumiere (Ind.), where he put up better than 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Isaiah Washington, Minnesota
One of four point guards to ever be named New York’s Mr. Basketball, 6-footer out of Harlem averaged 26 points and six assists for St. Raymond in the Bronx.

Nathan Reuvers, Wisconsin
Reuvers, a 6-9 forward, guided Lakeville North (Minn.) to the Class AAAA quarterfinals after averaging 25.9 points and 12.1 rebounds in his senior season.

Nojel Eastern, Purdue
Evanston standout did a bit of everything for the Wildkits, with the 6-6 guard averaging 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists for the sectional-champion team.

Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State
Powerhouse 6-10 center and Ohio Mr. Basketball averaged 21.7 points on 67 percent shooting and added 11.3 rebounds per game for Westerville South.

Darryl Morsell, Maryland
The 6-5 combo guard out of Baltimore could play right away after Melo Trimble declared for the NBA draft and signed with an agent, and Jaylen Brantley transferred to UMass.

Mark Smith, Illinois
New coach Brad Underwood fended off the likes of Michigan State, Duke and Kentucky to land the Illinois Mr. Basketball winner — a major get for the Illini.

Justin Smith, Indiana
The 6-7 Stevenson product stuck with Indiana after the coaching change from Tom Crean to Archie Miller after putting up 21.7 points and 10 rebounds per game for the Patriots.

Bruno Fernando, Maryland
The 6-10 Angolan power forward spent a postgraduate season at IMG Academy after reclassifying to 2017 following two seasons at Montverde Academy.

Thomas Allen, Nebraska
A one-time N.C. State signee, Allen was a huge get for Tim Miles after a rough offseason. The 6-2 guard averaged 18 ppg in his one season at Brewster Academy.


Our college basketball writer takes note of four national news items from the week that was:

Malcolm Hill’s time at Illinois is just about finished. According to his mom, Machanda Hill, the former Illini guard has his swimming class and a term paper to finish before graduation. Then, the No. 3 all-time scorer in program history will head to Las Vegas to train in preparation of the start of his professional career.

Marvin Menzies’ second class at UNLV got a major talent upgrade this week. Five-star forward Brandon McCoy, the No. 13 player in the 2017 class, was the first to pop. Then the Runnin’ Rebels added one of the top junior college players available in forward Shakur Juiston, along with one-time Oklahoma State point guard commit Amauri Hardy — both four-star talents.

Could Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo be none-and-done? The 6-foot-5 guard enrolled at Kentucky for the second semester with an agreement in place with coach John Calipari he would redshirt the second half of the Wildcats’ season. Diallo has now entered the draft without an agent, but is projected as an early second-round pick.

College basketball has to contend with college football and the NFL with its annual second Friday of November start to the season. But that might be changing. The idea has been floated to start the season that Tuesday instead. That gives basketball some cushion from a busy weekend, but only marquee matchups will drum up November interest.