Underwood on Smith: 'Sometimes it just doesn't work'

Underwood on Smith: 'Sometimes it just doesn't work'

CHAMPAIGN — Mark Smith's commitment to Illinois in April 2017 was a watershed moment.

Illini coach Brad Underwood was on the job a month when he was forced to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Michigan State, Duke, Kentucky and Ohio State in the final stage of Smith's recruitment. The blue bloods put on late pressure, but Illinois prevailed.

That Smith picked the Illini also made him the first Illinois Mr. Basketball winner to do since Jereme Richmond in 2010, while the winners in between chose UConn, Stanford, Duke (three times), Villanova and California.

Just less than 11 months later that bright moment for Illinois basketball has turned. Smith, The News-Gazette's 2017 All-State Player of the Year, announced his intention to transfer on Monday.

It happened just five days after Illinois wrapped up a 14-18 season with a first-round exit in the Big Ten tournament.

Underwood told The News-Gazette on Monday evening there was some disappointment in the first recruit he landed at Illinois opting to leave the program with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

"To a certain level, yeah, but I think you try to help each individual the best you can become the best they can be," Underwood said. "Sometimes it just doesn't work. That's kind of what it is in today's world.

"I think everybody evaluates what's best. I don't know if there's a starting point, an ending point. I thanked Mark for everything that he did and brought to us. He worked his tail off and was terrific. It's best left at that."

Multiple messages left to both Smith and his family by The News-Gazette on Monday were not immediately returned.

"I just don't fit the system," Smith told the Alton Telegraph on Monday. "I wish all the players the best of luck, but I just don't fit the system. 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. I wish the program the best of luck. I wish Coach Underwood and his staff, all my teammates, the best of luck."

Per multiple reports, Smith met with Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman on Monday. No restrictions were placed on his pending transfer.

That's par for the course for Underwood, who gave full releases to all four players — 2017 signees Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett and guards Jalen Coleman-Lands and D.J. Williams — who requested a release from their National Letter of Intent or opted to transfer when Whitman fired John Groce following the 2016-17 season.

"Guys can go do whatever fits them the best," Underwood said. "I'm in this for kids, and it's about helping them achieve their goals and dreams. I've never restricted (a transfer) in my career."

Smith's Illinois career started on a high note. He scored in double figures in four of the Illini's first five games — including a career-high 21 points in an 82-73 home win against DePaul on Nov. 17 — and started 16 of the first 17 games of the season. That included a big game at UNLV (17 points) and another solid performance against Missouri (11 points) in the Braggin' Rights game.

His production slowed considerably in Big Ten play, and the 6-foot-4 guard finished the season averaging 5.8 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. While he was a 79.6 percent free throw shooter, Smith shot 33.7 percent from the field overall and just 23.2 percent from three-point range.