Fact. The Illini have a prime opportunity to add to their already-impressive 2017 class, and it's one that they need not waste too much time capitalizing on.
Illinois was dealt a good hand with talented downstate players in such a crucial class. The result? Blue-chip big man Jeremiah Tilmon, legacy combo guard Da'Monte Williams and underrated scoring wing Javon Pickett.
Now, a late-blooming guard arises with a good build, nice bounce off the floor, handles, toughness and a sweet outside stroke. Oh, and he loves the orange and blue. It's time for the Illini to push more chips to the middle of the table and make a legit push at Edwardsville senior Mark Smith.
The Illini should feel fortunate given the circumstances. In fact, probably downright giddy. Smith has an offer from DePaul. Northwestern and Kansas State have been involved. He's averaging around 25 points per game, along with very good assist and rebounding numbers too. Imagine if he was playing at Morgan Park. He'd be all over the map by now.
But instead, Smith isn't a household name even in his own state. Take a look at his game, though, and you won't forget. Illini assistant coach Paris Parham sat courtside in Collinsville on Thursday to witness Smith explode for 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists against Springfield Southeast in the Prairie Farms Holiday Classic semifinals.
The 6-foot-4 guard was unstoppable off the dribble with even just a tight lane to the hoop. He had a number of and-one finishes. He hit the glass and facilitated. And he splashed four threes.
Fellow assistant Jamall Walker was already a fan. Walker went down to Edwardsville earlier this month to see Smith in open gym. He had been in to see him before, and he watched him on the AAU circuit.
And hard for Walker not to be a fan after Smith dropped 37 points in a win over Jordan Goodwin -- a guy Walker spent more time recruiting than anybody only to spurned in the end. And when you outplay Goodwin, that says something.
The fact of the matter is that Smith can give the Illini some of the things they wanted to get with Goodwin. Skill, versatility, competitor, attacker off the dribble, finisher, etc.
Smith has some of the Illini signees convinced.
"He has a great motor. Offensively, he can score it. Defensively, he can rebound and get stops. Overall, he could help us out a lot," Pickett told IlliniInquirer.com at the Braggin' Rights game. "I’m about to get a buzz in his ear about us so he can just come on and join the family."
Tilmon told IlliniInquirer.com on Thursday that he likes what Smith could potentially add. More weapons on the perimeter only helps the big guy. Tilmon frankly admitted that he'd like the Illini to add another piece to the frontcourt. But even if Illinois landed Smith, they'd have a scholarship to use on a big -- whether that be Jacob Epperson or a fifth-year transfer. Not to mention, Leron Black, Michael Finke and Kipper Nichols will all be in the frontcourt.
How about scholarships for the 2018 class? Isn't there enough guards on the roster? There are, but you have to expect some attrition to take place. It would be a surprise if someone on the current team doesn't transfer out before next season -- especially if the infusion of freshman talent grows even more.
As for the roster as a whole, having a plethora of guards isn't a bad thing. You know that style of play John Groce has talked about since he's been in Champaign? A stable of guards allows you to really play up and down. You can always use more guys who can handle, drive and shoot. And it's pretty obvious this roster still needs more athleticism.
Walker has told Smith that he reminds him of Rayvonte Rice. Boy, does Illinois thirst for someone like that RIGHT NOW. Smith has an even better stroke than Rice at this stage of his career. He has more hops too. Rice was more physical, but Smith is strong and his body will develop nicely at the next level.
The final step to this is getting Groce on board. By logical design, the head coach would like to see the player in a game before offering him a spot on his team. Groce stayed back in Champaign on Thursday in preparation for an all-important Big Ten home opener on Sunday against Ohio State.
But with Smith rematching Goodwin in the finals on Friday night, Illinois has told Smith that Groce and Walker will be in attendance in Collinsville -- Smith told IlliniInquirer.com. Smith wants an Illinois offer BAD. He looks the part. The Illini need to be sure, but there's a big opportunity, and they should take it while it's hot.null