Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Werner's Whits: (Big) Blue blood for Mark Smith?

Kentucky has offered Mark Smith. What's that mean for the Illini?

John Calipari has commitments from seven of the top-45 prospects in the Class of 2017, including six of the top-24. But on the same day Isaiah Briscoe declared for the NBA Draft, the Kentucky coach offered Edwardsville guard Mark Smith. How about you leave some for the rest of us, Cal?

I guess that’s why Illini coach Brad Underwood hired Calipari’s former assistant Orlando Antigua. But the former Memphis/Kentucky assistant learned at USF that recruiting for himself as a head coach is different than recruiting for head coach Calipari. Antigua certainly will open some doors for the Illini. We’ll see if Underwood can close them.

Take a second to reflect on Smith's rise. He was looking at low- and mid-majors during the late summer and early fall. Now, he has offers to play basketball for Calipari and Tom Izzo. While he may not pick your program, we likely won't see an unexpected rise like this for a long time -- if ever.

Kentucky and Illinois have something in common. Both would seem to be the emotional picks for the Illinois Mr. Basketball. Kentucky is sexy but is loaded with one-and-done talent who could impede Smith’s path to playing time and production. Illinois is close to home, the program for which he rooted growing up. The pick driven by logic? Michigan State. A top-tier Big Ten program with a Hall of Fame coach who needs a starting shooting guard immediately and has produced two top-20 NBA draft picks at the position (Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine) during the last four years. Illinois can sell proximity and the immediate starring role at the home-state program. Kentucky and Michigan State will sell their elite programs. Illinois needs Underwood to sell the heck out of his system or hope that Smith is just a very different kind of prospect who will pass on blue bloods.

If Smith goes elsewhere, Illinois needs another wing. Preferably a three with some length and athleticism.

Carlton Bragg? Talent is tantalizing, but no thanks.

Has the ship sailed with Jeremiah Tilmon? If it were up to me, yes. Even if he still had some Illini interest, it's not worth begging him once again. Underwood must establish his culture immediately -- something his predecessor struggled to do once his own recruits came in -- and Tilmon's camp has shown it wants over-the-top preferential treatment. Go find a fifth-year big and hopefully a prep prospect with length and athleticism who can be your future rim protector (Clifton Moore, Mayan Kiir, etc.) and get to work.

Mike Thomas seems to have made one good coaching hire at Illinois. A year after leading Illinois softball to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010, Tyra Perry has led the Illini to a 24-10 start to the 2017 season. Keep an eye on senior Nicole Evans, who is slashing .380/.479/.880 with 12 home runs (second-most in Big Ten) and 41 RBIs, and sophomore pitcher Taylor Edwards, who is 11-1 with a 2.10 ERA.Thomas saved his best hire for last, and Illini save their best sports for the spring.

Speaking of which, an Illini led the Master’s for a short time on Thursday. 2012 NCAA individual champion Thomas Pieters,who plays on the European Tour and currently is  No. 35 in the world golf rankings, held a three-stroke lead heading to the 11th hole with a 5-under par score. He then bogied 11 and then double-bogied 12 and 18. After all that, he finished the round at even par, tied for 12th overall with McIlroy and three strokes ahead of Spieth. A wild but overall solid day for the most talented player to come out of Mike Small’s program -- so far.

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