All eyes on him

All eyes on him

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood tried to be careful. Tried not to add to the mounting expectations on Mark Smith's shoulders.

Briefly at least. The first-year Illinois coach opted instead to not hold back when discussing one of his freshmen guards.

"I've said it privately, and now I'll say it publicly," Underwood said. "In my 30 years as a college basketball coach, from the day that young man arrived on campus to this day right now, I've never seen a young man improve more than he has. He's got big shoulders. I think he can handle that. He wants that pressure and wants that expectation, so to speak, put on him."

Smith isn't quite so worried about any expectations being placed on him. There have been plenty since he was named Illinois Mr. Basketball after a breakout season at Edwardsville. Plenty since the 2017 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year committed to Illinois in April — choosing the Illini even after the likes of Michigan State, Duke and Kentucky came calling.

"When you're Mr. Basketball, you represent the state, and there's a title with your name, but I'm just trying to play my game," Smith said. "I like how (the coaches) are honest with me and tell me what I can get better on. I just work every day and try to get better every day — work on something to improve my game or help the team. That's all I care about, trying to win. I just want to win. That's why I like Coach Underwood."

Smith's time was long spent split between baseball and basketball. Only in the last year has he been able to direct 100 percent of his focus to the latter. His basketball skills have improved because of it. Continuing to reshape his body — slimming down but maintaining strength — has helped, too.

“He’s not bullying people anymore,” Underwood said. “Now he’s got to make basketball plays. He’s been very gifted with his body and his athleticism to where he could do whatever he wanted physically.

“Now, that’s not the case. Mentally he’s growing all the time. He’s learning what it’s like to shoot a floater over (Greg Eboigbodin), who has a 7-foot wingspan and can challenge him.”

Smith continues to challenge himself after practices. That’s when the 1-on-1 sessions commence. Fellow freshman guard Trent Frazier is a regular foil, but Smith will take on any of his teammates.

“Trent, he’s a great player,” Smith said. “He’s really quick, so he’s helping me with my defense. I’ve played everyone in here 1-on-1. It’s something to just compete and see where I’m at.”

Smith provides a fair challenge himself. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds (even though he’s now closer to 216 or 217 pounds), Smith’s size makes for an interesting matchup with Frazier’s quickness at 6-1, 170.

“Playing Mark is unbelievable,” Frazier said. “He’s a big guy. I’ve got to sit down and guard him. …  We’re really focused on getting each other better. Our 1-on-1s are really long, competitive. He goes after me, and I go after him.”

Graduate transfer guard Mark Alstork gets in on those 1-on-1 matchups, too, in addition to practice time where they’re regularly pitted against each other.

“I’m finding out he’s a competitor,” Alstork said. “He wants to get better. He challenges me every day. He tells me to get him better. He’s going to be a remarkable talent and a great guard for this league.”

Ten practices into the 2017-18 season after Wednesday, Smith has spent the better part of that getting more reps running the Illinois offense after a collision with Te’Jon Lucas sent the sophomore point guard to the sidelines with a concussion. It’s just one position that Smith could play for the Illini this season.

Underwood said Smith could play the point or on the wing. The Illini coaches have even spent time working with Smith on his post-up game and in pick-and-roll situations as the screener. It’s something Underwood said he considered after reviewing how he used Thomas Walkup at Stephen F. Austin.

“There’s not one area I’m going to limit Mark,” Underwood said. “He’s going to be that guy that I think is a matchup nightmare because of his strength and athleticism. It’s my job to find ways to try to take advantage of that.”

If the situation calls for it, that could even mean playing Smith at power forward and making opposing teams’ big men try to figure out how to guard him. Smith is ready to accept that challenge — and really anything the Illinois coaches throw at him.

“I just like being able to expand my game,” Smith said. “I don’t have a position. I can play, I think, 1 through 4. I just want to play to win. Whatever I need to play to help the team wins, that’s what I’m going to play.”
So Smith continues to work on his post moves just in case.

“I’ve got some basic ones,” he said with a laugh. “But they work.”

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Moonpie wrote on October 12, 2017 at 4:10 pm

Time for the Apologist Gazoo to transfer the football alibi to hoops: They're paying a freshman! Free pass!