Illinois has its Mr. Basketball -- and potentially its star of the future -- with Edwardsville lead guard Mark Smith announcing on Wednesday that he has signed with the Illini.
Smith's pledge to Brad Underwood and his staff -- which included his letter of intent on Wednesday morning -- comes less than a week after he took one final visit to Champaign last Thursday. That visit sealed the deal in Smith's mind.
"When I went back up there (on Thursday), talked to Coach Underwood and told him what I wanted to do and what I wanted to do for the Illinois program and representing my state. He said he was on the same page and that he wants to push me to be the best basketball player I can be," Smith said. "That's really what did it for me."
This is one of the biggest additions the program has had in recent memory, and Smith's senior season and overall recruitment was one of the wildest blowups the state has seen.
Entering his senior year with no high-major offers, Smith averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game on his way to winning Mr. Basketball. And when all was said and done, Illinois beat out efforts from Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Ohio State to land him.
"We are thrilled to welcome Mark Smith to the University of Illinois family," Underwood said in a statement. "This is a big day both for us and for Mark, as he has now achieved the goal of being able to represent his home state by wearing the Fighting Illini jersey. Mark is obviously a talented player, but he will impact our program in many different areas. He is a phenomenal young man of high integrity, he comes from an outstanding family led by parents Anthony and Yvonne, he is committed to performing in the classroom, and he is a great leader.
"Mark has benefited from playing at a top high school in Edwardsville for Coach Mike Waldo and an elite AAU program in Ramey-Jets United for Coach Andre McMurray. Those two head coaches and the many assistants involved in those programs have fostered his improvement to a level where he earned Mr. Basketball status, a tremendous honor with so many great players in our state."
Smith brings strength and athleticism in a 6-foot-5 frame that is ready-made for the next level. He is a load going towards the basket with an ability to finish through and above contact. Smith has a smooth outside stroke as well, and he is an exceptional passer due to his ball skills and court vision.
He can be the complete package, which is why he had heavy-hitters at his door and in his living room late in the game. Tom Izzo came for multiple in-home visits, and Smith took an official visit to Michigan State earlier this month. John Calipari came for an in-home visit as well.
But Smith wanted the ball in his hands. Illinois sold him on being the man to take over the program and build his own legacy in Champaign.
"It was important to come in and make an impact. That played a part in my decision but also playing with great players," Smith said.
"Get us back to how it was. Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Get it back to winning again," he said.
Smith also had to be sold on Underwood, who had to reconstruct Illinois' relationship (with the important aid of Jamall Walker) from where John Groce left it. Underwood's uptempo, quick-hitting style was appealing to Smith. And he impressed Smith and the family with the detailed plans he presented on the in-home visit -- showing just how Smith would be utilized, developed and featured in his system.
"He said he's going to give me the ball. I can come in and earn a starting spot. I feel like right there, I could trust him," Smith said. "He's going to push me to be a better basketball player. That's how me and him started building a great relationship. We started talking every day."
This did not come easy, though. The coaching carousel shuffled up what looked to be a winning hand for Illinois, and it allowed some big players to take a seat at the table. The defection of Jeremiah Tilmon from the 2017 class added to that challenge as well.
But Smith kept his ear open to Illinois and continued to give them opportunities. They pushed the right buttons and capitalized on them. Ultimately, the new Illini staff came away with an enormous win on the recruiting trail.
And in Smith's mind, this is just the first of many wins to come.
"Coach Underwood, his offense, what he has planned -- I feel like the players coming back and the players coming in, we're going to be really good," he said. "I think we're going to go in there and win. And win a lot."
Stay tuned to IlliniInquirer.com for more.