Brad Underwood is 1-0 against blue bloods at Illinois. With barely any head start -- unless you consider Jamall Walker's short relationship with Mark Smith a huge head start -- Underwood beat Michigan State (which was in a full sprint for Smith), Kentucky (whose eyes wandered during the race) and Duke (which came out of the blocks in a leisurely stroll) in a race for the 2017 Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith. In under a month, Underwood's staff landed as hotly-contested of a recruit as Groce's best get during his entire five-year tenure (Jeremiah Tilmon chose Illinois over Kansas and North Carolina). Not a bad early notch on his Illini recruiting belt.
Smith is the first Illinois Mr. Basketball to join Illinois since Jereme Richmond in 2010. And Smith comes with none of the obvious red flags.
Speaking of red flags, this is a bigger get than Jeremiah Tilmon would have been. It's hard to find 6-foot-10 frames like Tilmon's with his kind of athleticism. With the right environment, Tilmon can become a great power-five big man -- and Illinois still needs one of those. He'll likely frustrate as a freshman. He fouls a lot and can get quickly, visibly frustrated on the court. But he also is a huge presence in the paint on both offense and defense. By the time he's a sophomore, he could be a force. But Tilmon isn't Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins. He's more along the lines of Thomas Bryant, Deyonta Davis or a De'Ron Davis -- which can be a very nice piece, and a needed piece for a Big Ten contender.
But college basketball is a lead guard's game. Smith will touch the ball on every possession. His scoring -- and he can do it at every level of the court -- can carry a team. He has the body and athleticism to be a lock-down defender, and Underwood surely will drag that out of him. Also, Smith's competitiveness can re-shape a culture (much like we thought Belleville Althoff stud Jordan Goowin could). Tom Izzo was selling Mark Smith on being the next Denzel Valentine in East Lansing. Illinois hasn't had that type of player and winner in more than a decade.
Marcus LoVett seemed too good to be true when a basketball stork dropped him into Chicago before the 2014-15 season -- just when Illinois sorely needed a play-making point guard. And he was. Academics blocked him from Illinois and held him out a season at St. John's. Smith also felt like a tall tale. A former Mizzou baseball commit who was solid on the summer AAU circuit and visited Northern Illinois, Wright State and SIU-Edwardsville. That guy all of a sudden outplays Goodwin head-to-head -- twice -- and beats East St. Louis and outplays Tilmon. No way. This must be #fakenews, or somehow Illinois would not be able t take advantage ... right? Nope. For once, Illinois has a fairy-tale end to a big-time recruitment. One of those every year -- or even two every three -- would usher in a new era under Underwood.
Smith certainly gives Illinois some much-needed positive PR and brings the Illini some momentum to the recruiting trail. The state's best player during the 2016-17 season chose Illinois over Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Thad Matta and -- oh that rising in-state B1G team led by -- Chris Collins. He bought into the the "make history" mantra that so few of the state's top prospects have bought into since Dee Brown pledged in 2002. It's a rarity to have such a player sign on to be the main guy to help turn around a program, see Cliff Alexander, Jalen Brunson, etc. Smith appears a different breed. And now that the Illini landed Smith, the sell becomes easier for Underwood. Players want to play with great players. Illinois just got a great player, and his commitment has created a buzz across the state. The Illini hope it helps with the state's frontrunner for 2018 Mr. Basketball.
Smith fills an immediate need and will play an immediate huge role for Illinois during the 2017-18 season. The Illini need bucket-getters following the graduation of their three top scorers: Malcolm Hill (17.2 points), Maverick Morgan (9.9 points) and Tracy Abrams (8.6 points). That alone accounts for 49.6 percent of the Illini scoring output last season and 27 field-goal attempts per game. Smith will immediately become one of the Illini's go-to scorers because unlike Leron Black (8.1 points), Jalen Coleman-Lands (8.0 points) and Michael Finke (6.9 points), he has a multi-dimensional offensive game that allows him to score from the arc, in the mid range, at the free-throw line and at the rim. Smith certainly will take some lumps as a freshman, but his size, strength and feel for the game give him the chance to be one of the Illini's better freshmen since D.J. Richardson was named Big Ten Freshmen of the Year by coaches in 2010.
Smith is a huge boost -- but he's just a start. Illinois has a huge hole in the post next season -- with few great options available -- and the seasons after that. The Illini need more front-court help, but the top option, Kansas transfer Carlton Bragg -- who has Illinois among five schools he's considering -- won't be available until the 2018-19 season and has some red flags attached to him. Illinois State graduate transfer MiKyle McIntosh (a defensive difference-maker who can add rebonding, blocking and three-point range too) could help bolster the frontcourt in the short-term. But the Illini desperately need a long-term rim protector -- like Tilmon. Kansas prep Francesco Badocchi certainly has the hops and length but is really raw. Baltimore (Md.) Mt. Zion Prep forward Obadiah Toppin is a similar late-bloomer who has plus length and athleticism. Both are more long-term projects, so the Illini will likely go with smaller lineups next season -- meaning the guards will have to adjust to Underwood's in-your-face pressure immediately to make up for their in-the-paint deficiencies.
But that's why Underwood was hired. He's 4-for-4 in making NCAA Tournaments as a head coach, and three of those were at Stephen F. Austin. His predecessor was 0-for-his-last-4 and 3-for-9 overall. Underwood has gotten the most out of rosters with deficiencies and players who underachieved under their previous coaches. Now, his staff just landed its top recruiting target.
Score a big one for Underwood and Illinois basketball. Beating a few blue bloods in a recruitment is just one step forward, but it's a big step and a needed foundational step -- definitely worth celebrating for this program.