1. Brad Underwood thinks highly of Mark Smith's character
"Not only did the University of Illinois get a good basketball player, we got a young man who has worked really, really hard to get there," Underwood said. "He wasn’t on a lot of radars as a sophomore in high school. I have tremendous value in the character he’s shown to become Mr. Basketball in this state."
The former Missouri baseball commit transformed his focus and his game during the past year, elevating himself from a low- to mid-major basketball recruit to one of the country's most sought-after guards this spring.
Underwood thinks Smith has the makeup to elevate his program.
“Character wins," Underwood said. "Yes, you have to be a good player. But character and the culture. He’s got tremendous leadership. That was evidenced at his press conference yesterday with how many people showed up and former teammates. That’s a tremendous trait. Not everybody can pull that off. People are drawn to him. He’s got that personality about him.
“We want to build our program around young men who win off the court just as much as they win out the court.”
2. Brad Underwood also thinks highly of Mark Smith's game
A star also needs talent, and Smith has plenty. The No. 1 point guard in the Midwest averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game as a senior and turned down offers from Michigan State, Kentucky, Ohio State and several other top programs to join Illinois as Underwood's first signee.
And Underwood compared him -- at the same age -- to an Illini great.
“He’s an explosive athlete," Underwood said. "The first time I’ve watched him he reminded me of a former player here, Deron Williams, only probably a better shooter at the same time at this point in his career. Some people have labeled Mark as a specialist shooter. I don’t see that at all. I think he’s a playmaker. I think he’s a guy who can play the point and be a tremendous asset, because he makes his teammates better. He does whatever is needed in the course of a game. If that’s scoring, he’s going to score. If the defense loads to him, he’s an extremely high IQ player. He’s got great feel. He’s got great instincts, and physically he’s in a great position to play right away. Everybody’s seen his body type. He’s a strong athlete. Usually freshmen have to develop physically. Mark doesn’t. Mark’s dialed in there. He’s a really strong man. But his skill set is very unique and he’s very well-rounded in all aspects.”
While Underwood inherited two talented point guards -- rising sophomore Te'Jon Lucas and top-100 signee Trent Frazier -- Underwood said the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Smith can play with and complement the rest of the Illini backcourt.
“Size is a tremendous value when you have his athleticism and his skill set," Underwood said. "His versatility is one of his greatest assets. His play-making allows him to play the point, plus his IQ. Obviously you have smaller guards that are maybe not as versatile in TJ and Trent, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad players either. But Mark’s got a unique skill set because of the athleticism and skill set he has.”
3. The Illini really, really need a big man
But about that post ... yeaaaaaah.
Now, Underwood has some nice frontcourt pieces. Rising junior Leron Black is a great rebounder and has a good mid-range game. Rising junior Michael Finke has a dangerous offensive skill set. Underwood said Thursday that strong, athletic rising sophomore wing Kipper Nichols could become one of the Big Ten's best defenders. Long, athletic rising junior D.J. Williams has shown flashes but no semblance of consistency.
The Illini have some options at the 3 and 4, but they have no true 5, no true post. Finke, who is recovering from a foot injury, and Black are undersized at the 5. While they could cause some match-up issues on offense, they both struggle as defenders and wouldn't provide much rim protection.
"We don’t per se have a center right now," Underwood said. "We’ve got scholarships open, and we’ll continue to keep knocking on doors and beating the trails looking for them. In today’s world, it’s a lot of transfers, a lot of fifth-year transfers and we’ll continue to look to make this team as good as we can possibly make it.”
Underwood is unable to publicly discuss Jeremiah Tilmon, who many have assumed would end up at Missouri after Illinois granted his release from his national letter of intent. But the Illini staff has had recent conversations with the four-star center's camp.
Tilmon's drama-filled recruitment has been exhausting and left some wondering whether he's worth the hassle. But he does fit exactly what the Illini need in the middle: a 6-foot-10 center who can impact the game at the rim at both ends. With Smith on board, Tilmon -- whose relationship with Illinois has already been classified as "it's complicated" -- may find it easier to finally stick with Illinois. He had been recruiting Smith to the Illini. He wouldn't feel like he has to be the Illini's savior.
Plus, the rest of the open market (prep and fifth-year transfers) is very slim on bigs. Francesco Badocchi or Obadiah Toppin would give the Illini a long, athletic option that can cause issues on defense and crash the offensive glass. But neither has an imposing frame, like Tilmon.
What's Underwood look for in bigs?
“I think the one thing you try to find is somebody who can do something exceptionally well," Underwood said. "You’re not finding that guy usually who has a well-rounded package. You may. But whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s scoring, I look for them to excel in one area. Then we can help them with the rest. Whether that be a high school kid or whether it be a fifth-year or a high-school kid, we’ll take what fits. Adding a piece there would be quite nice.”
4. Underwood is confident he can win big or small
What if the Illini don't land an impact big during the next few weeks? Well, Underwood has won with small teams before.
Oklahoma State last season had the 234th tallest Division I team in the country, and Underwood led the Cowboys to a 20-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance. All three of Underwood's Stephen F. Austin teams were among the 20 smallest teams in Division I, but Underwood went 89-14 overall with the Lumberjacks and made three NCAA Tournaments -- including a 70-56 win over a much taller, much more talented West Virginia team in 2016.
“I think we played the majority of the game against West Virginia with 5-8, 5-10 and three 6-foot-4 guys," Underwood said. "I think the outcome was OK. Hugs (Bob Huggins) will probably disagree with that. I think sometimes it’s the fight in the dog instead of the size of the dog, so to speak. I’ve loved what I’ve seen out here in terms of our guys competing. Are we going to look for size? Absolutely. That’s a priority. But I’m sure not afraid to play small.”
Underwood's predecessor often adjusted his game plan to his opponent. Underwood's teams tend to dictate the terms of the game. A shorter team could do that too.
Playing Finke and Black at the 5 causes the Illini issues with interior defense, but also creates a mismatch for opponents -- both with so many versatile, shooting threats on offense and on defense with so many quick, athletic options to apply pressure (including Nichols and Williams at the 4).
Those schemes have not yet been implemented of course. The new Illini coaching staff has spent some time the last three weeks with its team, focusing mostly on the fundamentals.
“We’ve had a tremendous spring," Underwood said. "It’s been mostly skill work. Today was the first day that we have had the group all together. It’s been small groups. A lot of repetitions, a lot of ball handling, a lot of passing, a good amount of shooting anda lot of footwork things. I’m a very fundamental guy. We start at the ground level. We’ll get them back in June. Now, it’s their time. Now, they need to get on the floor and work. I’m pleased with their commitment level, their work ethic and their ability to listen. That’s all I can ask for.”
5. Underwood made a statement by signing Smith
Underwood's resume speaks loudly, but landing the Illinois Mr. Basketball gives even more credence to Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman's confidence that Underwood will fulfill his "We Will Win" mantra.
“I think the lifeblood of our program is recruiting," Underwood said. "To be able to get Mr. Basketball in this state? We should. We’ve got to be the option. Not just a option. We have to be the option. I’ve said this many times. We’re the University of Illinois. We got one of the proudest, most dynamic histories. We have great tradition. We have a great fan base. I think it’s a very positive thing for us. It’ speaks volumes to our staff. Jamall did a great job. We all delved into this recruitment. We group-recruit. I think it speaks volumes. I’m excited about that. I think it’s something we can build upon, and it sure beats the alternative of not getting him.”