Hear Smith's decision Wednesday at 6 p.m. on WDWS.
Coach Brad Underwood is making his first gigantic step in rebuilding Illinois basketball today.
The state’s Mr. Basketball, 6-foot-5 Mark Smith, has favored the Illini throughout the months-long recruiting process and The News-Gazette’s All-State Player of the Year will formally announce his intention at 6 tonight inside Edwardsville High School’s Lucco-Jackson Gymnasium.
Word of Smith’s choice spread through Edwardsville and is the hottest item in collegiate basketball today ... a game in which late signees, 400-plus transfers and NBA draftees are almost daily changing the face of upcoming seasons.
The muscular athlete, who signed a baseball deal with Missouri before hurting his arm, "blew up" this season in averaging 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds while carrying Edwardsville to a Class 4A super-sectional appearance.
Having settled on his choice, Smith declined weekend trips to the powerhouse programs at Duke and Kentucky, and has dropped Kansas State and Ohio State from consideration. Michigan State, with upcoming sophomore Cassius Winston and senior "Tum Tum" Nairn returning at point, was the final hurdle. Smith is expected to inform MSU’s Tom Izzo and the other losing coaches today.
Guards aplenty next season
It has been a long time since Illinois beat out such a quality list of teams, and it prevents the Illini from washing out on this year’s extraordinary talent in the Metro East area.
Illinois has been short of the playmaking dimension since Demetri McCamey graduated in 2011, a situation exacerbated by multiyear injuries limiting Tracy Abrams. Smith will be "given the ball" and, if he lives up to expectations, will be a stalwart team leader.
Underwood has high hopes for upcoming sophomore Te’Jon Lucas and will evaluate the use of Smith and Lucas together. With veteran ballhandlers Malcolm Hill, Jaylon Tate and Abrams completing their eligibility, the addition of Floridian Trent Frazier and the return of Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan turns this into a guard-strong squad.
What’s next for Tilmon?
The Smith decision coincides with the semi-delayed report that Cal transfer Charlie Moore will attend Kansas. UI coaches clearly placed more emphasis on Smith. Moore must sit out a year of residency and won’t become eligible until 2018-19, the same time that the more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu, 6-4 junior guard from Morgan Park, enters college.
Underwood attended Dosunmu’s AAU games in Virginia this past weekend and is setting his sights on a duo of "Mr. Basketballs" — Smith and likely 2018 winner Dosunmu — in his backcourt.
New assistant coach Chin Coleman has close supervision of the Dosunmu case, just as Jamall Walker was closely attached to Smith.
The expected Smith announcement creates an opening to make another move toward 6-10 Jeremiah Tilmon of East St. Louis, who privately agreed to attend Missouri after receiving his release from Illinois. Tilmon hasn’t taken a visit to Missouri or anywhere else in the weeks since, and while a return to Illinois is a long shot, he’ll be reminded that the departures of Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne leave an open position at his once-favored school.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.