The biggest campus visit of Brad Underwood's head coaching career to date will kick off on Thursday, as Mr. Basketball winner Mark Smith will give the Illini one last look before making his decision.
Smith took an official visit to Michigan State earlier this month. He had one last in-home visit with Tom Izzo on Tuesday night down in Edwardsville. Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer came through on Wednesday.
Underwood has been down to see Smith and the family a few times in the last few weeks, including an in-home visit with assistants Jamall Walker and Orlando Antigua on April 6. Smith went up to Champaign for a pair of visits during the basketball season. But this will be the first time that these two parties will come together on campus -- and it comes at such a crucial time.
Smith has an official visit slated to Ohio State through Friday and Saturday, but sources have indicated that trip still isn't 100 percent solidified. Either way, it appears that a decision will come by no later than next week.
Smith is ranked No. 76 overall in the 2017 class by the new Scout.com rankings, which makes him the top-rated senior point guard in the Midwest. But that only lightly grazes over what he would mean for the home-state school.
Going Illinois' way
Big-time players are worthy of big-time opportunity. Smith knows that he is ready-made for the Big Ten. And he knows that Illinois has the keys waiting for him.
There are a handful of aspects to Illinois' sell that strike chords with Smith. Repping the home state. Keeping his parents close. He loves the campus. He loves the atmosphere and the fan base.
Illinois was really the offer he set out for when he decided to play his senior season unsigned. He was thrilled when he got it. Walker started the relationship but John Groce really connected with Smith as well. When Groce was fired, Smith said he had planned on playing for Groce.
But the Illini were able to survive the coaching change. They were able to utilize Walker to bring Underwood up to speed quickly. And they were able to withstand the Jeremiah Tilmon defection, which happened just days before Smith's official visit to East Lansing. But Illinois came in strong with their in-home and they've hung on to have, really, the best opportunity left with this visit on campus.
The history and tradition of Illinois basketball is very important to Underwood, as he made clear at his introductory press conference last month. He has used that in his pitch -- saying that Smith can make his own history in Champaign by helping to bring the program back to glory.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1771138-illini-pitch-to-mark... You do that by winning. And all Underwood has done as a head coach is win. You do that by developing players, and while Michigan State has names like Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine to utilize, Underwood helped Jawun Evans take huge steps last season in his system. It was an offense that had the highest efficiency rating in the country, and Evans is currently projected as a first round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Underwood's uptempo style with aggressive guards and quick-hitting attacks is attractive to Smith. And so is the plan within that scheme. Underwood has a fantastic basketball mind, and one of the most resonating parts of his in-home visit was the detailed plan he had for Smith in the offense. He was able to show him exactly how he would be utilized and how it would feature his traits as a lead guard.
It all boils down to this: 'Do you want the ball?' The Illini can put it in Smith's hands right away. Michigan State can't sell that. Cassius Winston is their guy at point guard. He has three years left. Josh Langford is a very talented two-guard. The former McDonald's All-American is only a sophomore. Miles Bridges returns, and let's just tab him as Big Ten Player of the Year already. And he has to play the three because of incoming McDonald's All-American Jaren Jackson Jr. at the four and Nick Ward at the five.
They're loaded. But while the Spartans could take him on a ride to the Final Four next season, Illinois is selling that Mark can come and build what will be his own Final Four team.
Sources have indicated that is really hitting home with Smith. There are some close to him who truly believe he has Illinois in his heart. Smith keeping the Illini around this long and taking this visit speaks to that. The key for Illinois is getting the parents on board too.
Going against Illinois
The Illini survived the blue-blood rush. Kentucky head coach John Calipari had an in-home visit with Smith and the family. He invited them on a visit. But the fit never materialized. Duke kicked the tires, but no real action.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Michigan State is a heck of an opponent in this thing. The door swung wide open for them to get involved when Groce was fired. That's a coaching staff that has never seen Smith live in a game.
But Izzo is Izzo. He and his staff made a big impression during their first in-home visit. Smith and his family know that's a team you see competing for Final Fours regularly. They know next year's team is ready to win big. They know Izzo has proof that he can develop guards and vault them to the NBA.
Valentine and Harris are examples that they have used quite often. And the Spartans do a very good job of mixing what Smith is looking for in a winning team with plenty of allure and exposure, while also providing the NBA element. That specific aspect has play with Smith's dad.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to get to the ultimate level. And when coaches tell you your son is a pro, that can open your eyes to another component of the recruiting process. Smith's dad was big on Kentucky's NBA pitch. He wanted his son to visit there. But again, there wasn't a fit.
Michigan State can play on that, while ultimately making more sense for Smith than Kentucky. There are programs -- even with high pedigrees -- that make you say 'why are they a factor'. Kentucky was that with a handful of high-level guards already in their 2017 class, and they'll bring in more like clockwork each and every year.
But even Illinois would admit that they 'get it' why Michigan State is a factor. They've been a big one. And it's not necessarily easy for a new head coach to fight off a conference king and national power in the span of about a month after taking the job.
Confidence in a commitment
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest) 3 -- Illinois has a chance to blow Smith away on the visit, and they plan on doing just that. But even so, that doesn't mean that he will publicly commit right then and there. As of Wednesday night, a source said that Smith could very well decide on Illinois on Thursday, but he would probably wait to announce it. Emotions can change some things, though. It is possible. But that is why the number isn't higher.
Landing Smith would be a game-changer for Underwood and the trajectory of this program. He would be the first Illinois Mr. Basketball to land in Champaign since Jereme Richmond in 2010. It would be a huge win in perception, but an even bigger one on the court in the coming seasons.
Smith can be one of your best players right away. He can be one of the best freshmen guards in the conference -- given the kind of opportunity that he will receive. And he can be, quite simply, a stud in the making.
Combine him with top-100 point guard Trent Frazier, and that gives Underwood loads of fresh talent to mold and utilize in his backcourt. That duo could be flat out lethal together down the road.
Throw Te'Jon Lucas, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Da'Monte Williams into that mix. That's a pretty good group of guards with a few years to mesh and grow together.
Other pieces will need to be put into place, but Smith is the kind of addition that enables Underwood to deliver on 'we will win' sooner rather than later.