Mike Pegram, Peegs.com

Mark Smith: Common name, uncommon game

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper has the latest on Edwardsville star Mark Smith.

The name 'Mark Smith' is about as normal and common as it gets in this country, but the game and explosive timeline of Edwardsville's Mark Smith is something to marvel.

Five months ago, Smith wasn't too far removed from his third official visit at Northern Illinois with no high-major offer in sight. Statewide, he was flying under the radar like a stealth bomber.

And the subsequent explosion has been eye-poppingly entertaining for any fan of the game given the chance to witness. Not to mention, the homestate Illini -- with an open spot and an unmistakable gem all of a sudden in their backyard.

Fast forward to March. The golden month for the sport. And Smith has gone from nearly unknown to nearly uncontested as the favorite to win Mr. Basketball. It shouldn't really be close.

His numbers are ridiculous. And so is his team's 29-1 record.

On Tuesday night, Smith met up with an up-and-coming star in Belleville West sophomore EJ Liddell in the sectional semifinals. Liddell was coming off a monster outing in the regional final last Friday to end Jeremiah Tilmon's season. And West was Edwardsville's only blemish during the regular season.

But there was no stopping Smith and the Tigers in Collinsville. Smith surged in the first quarter with nine points in the first eight minutes, including a wow-factor dunk over Liddell and then another slam in transition.

The game was tied at 30 heading into the fourth quarter after Smith showed off his baseball arm with a perfectly placed heave to A.J. Epenesa from one end of the court to the other to beat the buzzer. And once the fourth quarter started, Smith was absolutely electric.

He was an and-one machine whenever he decided to go to the bucket. He splashed a big three to extend a run. And he got out in transition with an alley-oop pass to Epenesa that brought the house down. He did it all.

Smith finished with 31 points on the night in a 56-43 victory. He was focused, hungry and flat out fantastic.

"We got a goal this year. We want to go far and we're taking it one game at a time. That's a good team," Smith said. "It's hard to beat a team three times in a row. We were confident coming in. I thought we did a great job."

Smith can do just about anything you want. Get to the rack. Hit the three. Use the pull-up. Collapse the defense and kick it. He's physical. He has height. He has handles.

"I'm just trying to do my thing. Be a playmaker and do whatever I can to help my team win," Smith said.

He's doing it. And he's going to do it for someone lucky enough to have him at the next level. The Illini future can be bright with the current class they have in 2017, which ranks ninth in the country. But it can get a whole lot brighter with Smith.

That's just a different kind of player that Illinois has seen in their backcourt in years. Smith and his dad said they have been paying close attention to what's going on in Champaign. They've done their homework and taken visits, but they're waiting for answers like everyone else.

But in the meantime, John Groce and his staff have been putting in the work.

"I've been talking to Coach Groce a lot. He's just been telling me to keep focused," Smith said. "I talk to Coach (Jamall) Walker a lot too."

Champaign isn't the only place Smith has visited, though. He and his mom went to Indiana on Feb. 25 for the Hoosiers' game against Northwestern.

"It was good. It's a big campus. Good crowd," Smith said. "They say they want to use me as a point guard. Want to use me as a playmaker."

The weekend prior, Smith and his family were in Evanston to watch Northwestern take on Rutgers.

Kansas State is in the mix as well. Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber was in attendance on Tuesday night.

As for the next move, Smith is locked in on taking each step to being in position to win the state title. After that, recruiting will hop up into the forefront of his mind.

"I'll really focus in on recruiting after the season," Smith said. "I'm probably going to use both my official visits before I make a decision."

Smith's father told IlliniInquirer.com that it's possible that his son may wait until early April to make a decision. Whether it goes that long or not, the Smith family will be attentively watching the happenings around the program in the next week.

We can only attempt to predict the plan for the future Josh Whitman has in mind. What's easier is to calculate the potential impact of having Smith's sneakers on the State Farm Center court next season and seasons after.

Here's a hint: It'd be huge.

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