Illini target Smith thriving under recruiting glare

Illini target Smith thriving under recruiting glare

NORMAL — Edwardsville boys’ basketball fans mobbed Mark Smith after his 45-point performance in an 81-59 win over Danville last Friday in the Class 4A Ottawa Sectional title game, with several kids, in high school and younger, sidling up to him for a quick selfie, getting their picture with a player on a meteoric rise.

Then, Nebraska coach Tim Miles jogged into the crowd of people, stood by Smith, pulled out his phone, snapped a quick picture with a smile on his face and jogged back out.

“It’s great,” Smith said of the attention. “I like to take pictures with the kids. I was a little kid once. I still am little.”

Smith, a former Missouri baseball commit who is now receiving attention from coaches around the country, began his last game by hitting two deep three-pointers in front of several college coaches, including Miles and Ohio State’s Thad Matta.

The Illinois recruiting target finished the night by scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to put top-ranked Edwardsville (30-1) into Tuesday’s Class 4A Normal Super-Sectional against third-ranked Chicago Simeon (28-3) that tips at 7 p.m. at Redbird Arena.

“It’s up there,” Smith said of where last Friday night’s game ranks in terms of his all-time performances. “It’s a great feeling to win. It’s a surreal feeling right now.”

After an elbow injury forced him to reevaluate his college baseball plans, Smith played just three weeks of AAU basketball last summer. His father, former Southern Illinois-Edwardsville player Anthony Smith, watched as his son scored 31 points during a tournament in Kansas, only to draw little power-conference interest.

“There were a ton of high-major coaches sitting there,” said Anthony Smith, who coaches at Metro East Lutheran High School in Edwardsville. “When we got in the car he said, ‘Dad, what do you think?’ I said, ‘If they don’t call after that performance, they’re not going to call.’ And nobody called (aside from mid-majors).”

Mark Smith did pick up several mid-major offers, but when signing day came this past November, he decided to wait.

“When we talked to him when it came close to signing time and committing, he said, ‘Dad, what would happen if I just played?’” Anthony Smith said.

That’s exactly what Mark Smith did. And after impressive performances early in the season, including an MVP showing at the Collinsville Holiday Tournament in late December, high-major offers began pouring in.

In an age when high-major recruits are usually on coaches’ radar early in high school, Smith’s recruiting process has been compressed. He’s visited Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana, but his parents say they’ve hardly had time to process the bevy of interest.

“When we’re home, it’s laundry, homework and our phones are ringing off the hook,” said his mother, Yvonne Smith. “We never get an opportunity to just sit down and talk about it.”

Smith’s recruiting process is extended with every game Edwardsville wins this postseason. Plenty of college coaches have shown they’ll wait as long as it takes.

“He’s not going to do anything until he visits and is interested,” Yvonne Smith said. “He really doesn’t talk about, ‘Oh, I like this school, I like that school.’ ... He likes a lot of the schools, he loves the coaches, so I just think right now he’s really focused on getting the team to state.”

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